Inspired by the elegance of this idea, Marco Dorigo, a computer scientist at the Université Libre in Brussels, used his knowledge of ant behavior in 1991 to create mathematical procedures for solving particularly complex human problems, such as routing trucks, scheduling airlines, or guiding military robots.
In Houston, for example, a company named American Air Liquide has been using an ant-based strategy to manage a complex business problem. The company produces industrial and medical gases, mostly nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, at about a hundred locations in the United States and delivers them to 6,000 sites, using pipelines, railcars, and 400 trucks. Deregulated power markets in some regions (the price of electricity changes every 15 minutes in parts of Texas) add yet another layer of complexity.
"Right now in Houston, the price is $44 a megawatt for an industrial customer," says Charles N. Harper, who oversees the supply system at Air Liquide. "Last night the price went up to $64, and Monday when the cold front came through, it went up to $210." The company needed a way to pull it all together.
Working with the Bios Group (now NuTech Solutions), a firm that specialized in artificial intelligence, Air Liquide developed a computer model based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), a species that deposits chemical substances called pheromones.
"When these ants bring food back to the nest, they lay a pheromone trail that tells other ants to go get more food," Harper explains. "The pheromone trail gets reinforced every time an ant goes out and comes back, kind of like when you wear a trail in the forest to collect wood. So we developed a program that sends out billions of software ants to find out where the pheromone trails are strongest for our truck routes."
Ants had evolved an efficient method to find the best routes in their neighborhoods. Why not follow their example? So Air Liquide combined the ant approach with other artificial intelligence techniques to consider every permutation of plant scheduling, weather, and truck routing—millions of possible decisions and outcomes a day. Every night, forecasts of customer demand and manufacturing costs are fed into the model.
"It takes four hours to run, even with the biggest computers we have," Harper says. "But at six o'clock every morning we get a solution that says how we're going to manage our day."
For truck drivers, the new system took some getting used to. Instead of delivering gas from the plant closest to a customer, as they used to do, drivers were now asked to pick up shipments from whichever plant was making gas at the lowest delivered price, even if it was farther away.
"You want me to drive a hundred miles? To the drivers, it wasn't intuitive," Harper says. But for the company, the savings have been impressive. "It's huge. It's actually huge."