Ant-based processing and hive minds

Image from Steve Bowers

A form of ant that is sophont, not at the level of individual ants, but at the level of their nest as a whole.

In the early second century A.T., as a biological route to mesoscopic technology, experiments were performed on ants and a number of other types of social insects in an attempt to modify them into programmable tools on a nest or hive level. These modifications mainly consisted of giving them a more organised central command structure, so that programmed commands could be accurately implemented at the level of an individual insect, with accurate co-ordination between different parts of the nest. The insect's own pheromonal communications systems were used to achieve all of this by significantly increasing the flexibility, power and bandwidth of the colony's own communications network, and making it more two-way, providing feedback to the centre, as well as adding limited planning abilities to that centre. Each insect effectively became a cluster of nerve cells in a body that formed the nest as a whole, far more so than was the case with unmodified insects.

Because pheromonal communication is volatile, so that insects using it can tell how old each message is by the state of the chemicals involved, baseline insects use volatile pheromones to map out things such as efficient ant run systems, and by choosing the chemical composition and volatility of a pheromone message allow important data to be distinguished from the relatively trivial. This provides a means of both communication and memory in one, and this methodology was retained and expanded in the experiments on insect-tech.

Although the efforts to create insect-tech had some success, particularly with ants, who were successfully turned into builders, cleaners and so on, advances in nanotechnology soon outstripped the fledgling 'ant-tech', and the insect research was abandoned for lack of funding.

The modified ants remained as curiosities in specialised ant-farms at a number of research facilities across the solar system, but were basically bypassed by progress.

Having survived the Technocalypse, ant-tech continued to be found in a number of laboratories. However, in a number of locations it had also escaped into the wild. In some places this wild ant-tech was able to compete with other wild life-forms and survived; in others it was not, and became extinct.

Because the ant-tech was a curiosity rather than a subject for research and development, no-one noticed that the ants at the University of Econesium on the Museum Ship Great Green Growth were still evolving. As the nest grew and inter-ant communications improved over very many ant generations, eventually primitive but true sophoncy appeared as an emergent property of the millions of ants making up the nest as a whole, some time in the seventh millennium A.T.

It took some time before the sophoncy of the nest was recognised, as well as several 'break-out's' from its ant farm, but in 7465 A.T. the fact of it became plain. It took even longer for communication to be established with the nest, but eventually this was done.

Once communications were established, non-invasive investigation of the Anttechian (as it had, by then, become known) showed that, although it thought slowly on an overall level, being linked purely by pheromones rather than by electrochemical signals, it could act quickly on a local level, if only in a pre-programmed way. Its primary senses were touch, smell and taste, although it had hearing and crude sight at the level of the integrated vision of all the ants making it up.

It had drives to survive and grow, and although sophont, because it had become so on its own, in isolation from other sophont minds, it was hardly what could be considered a well-rounded individual. However, after contact with the people of the Great Green Growth its intellect developed to the point that it became the equivalent of a baseline human. It learned from the people there, while they, in turn, learned from it.

In time the original Anttechian split into two, and those into more, and Anttechians began to spread out into Terragens space. By 10000 A.T. they have a number of small polities of their own scattered through Terragens space, but are also found living in any number of mixed-species polities throughout that space.

The original Anttechians showed little interest in the other non-sophont ant-tech projects scattered in laboratories across Terragens space, and despite attempts by some groups to force some of these other nests to develop sophoncy using what has been learned from the Anttechians, so far only the descendants of the original Anttechian have done so.

The time it takes for an Anttechian to respond to its surroundings in an 'interactive' (that is, not pre-programmed) manner depends on how spread out the members of the nest are. If they are all fairly close together, the time is in the seconds. If they are further away, this time can rise to the tens of seconds. In a nest where the inter-ant communications links are (for example) carried by radio rather than by means of pheromones the Anttechian will react much more quickly than this.

When an Anttechian is spread out in its 'normal operating mode', the individual ants making it up cannot be pre-programmed subtly enough for detailed, intricate tasks such as surgery or debugging faulty microtech; the work must be done 'interactively', and thus slowly. However, given advance notice that it will be needing to do something this complex, a nest can reconfigure itself into a compact configuration, cutting down communications lags sufficiently that it can operate significantly faster than normal, so that although it is not doing subtle pre-programming of its individual ants it is controlling them much more in 'real time'.

It is also possible for a large nest (one considerably larger than that needed to simply be sophont) to, with training and mental discipline, use the raw processing power it has available more efficiently by subdividing its mental processes and thus multi-tasking. For example, the nest as a whole is too slow to perform exploratory surgery. However, if it concentrates part of itself at the surgery site and pre-programs those ants with the general goal of the surgery, they can then take that goal and program themselves in detail to carry it out, forming a kind of programmable subconscious.

The original Anttechians had problems with all their ants using the same pheromonal code as each other, meaning that individual Anttechian nests had to stay a fair distance apart, otherwise the ants making them up would begin to receive and respond to each others communications. Later modifications to themselves have eliminated this problem, giving each Anttechian a unique identifier used on all pheromonal communications. Now ants only have a problem when two nests are sufficiently close that the pheromones from one swamp those from the other, leading to the ants from the swamped individual being unable to 'hear' the Anttechian they are part of.

Because of these and the other disadvantages of pheromonal over other means of communication, the majority of sophont Anttechians move from pheromone-based communications to something faster and more efficient as soon as they can.

Anttechians are immortal, depending on the lives of the individual ants that make them up. Having biological memories, they do forget, though.

Their main method of breeding is by fission of the nest, with all the new Anttechians being copies of the original. This does cause some temporary reduction in the intellect of the new individuals (in a fashion that is non-linear with numbers), until the numbers are made up, but as fission is normally a planned process, the 'parent' Anttechian will usually increase the number of ants making it up to compensate for this intellect reduction as much as it can.

Alternatively, an Anttechian can reproduce by breeding swarms of new queens and males called alates that then leave it to mate and form new nests elsewhere. Obviously these new nests are essentially babies, and must be raised into full sophoncy like any other child.

It takes decades for an entirely new nest (one founded by alates rather than by fission of an existing nest) to grow up to a baseline level; this growing up consists mainly of communications optimisation once the nest reaches its adult size. Anttechians created by fission of an existing nest will be at essentially the same level as their progenitor right away.

Because of their asexual natures and immortality, Anttechians do not need society as much as, for example, humans. However, they are by no means solipsist, and do co-operate with other sophonts on larger projects where they know they will be stronger en masse, or where there are things to be learned. They form 'families' based on lines of descent from the original Anttechian.

Some Anttechians have permanent nests, others do not. Many are masters of mesoscopic technology.

High-technology Anttechians often incorporate higher-technology processing, sensors and effectors directly into themselves. This is particularly used to improve inter-ant communication, allowing larger and faster nests. Some Anttechians have achieved higher toposophic levels, and others have abandoned organic form altogether, shifting their minds into nests made up of masses of tiny ant-vecs, or into virches.

The first Anttechian to achieve transapience did so basically by accident. While increasing its size in preparation to undergo fission to split into two new colonies, the level of 'neural' interconnectivity between the colony's individual ant-units increased geometrically, as it normally does under these circumstances, but this time with an unexpected and unprecedented side effect. Just as the colony was about to undergo fission and split into two new separate sophont-level individuals, it suddenly and unexpectedly added on a whole new layer of thought and breached the first toposophic barrier, becoming transapient in the space of a few seconds. It quickly decided to remain as one colony rather than lose this overwhelming and intoxicating degree of enlightenment, lucidity, and clarity that it had unexpectedly, fortuitously achieved. This colony has since remained together as one, not 'budding-off' any new individuals, and produces new individual ants within itself only as necessary to maintain its numbers.

There have been a number of other, similar cases of Anttechians undergoing transcension, both while growing in preparation for fission, and more deliberately at other times. Obviously, it does not always happen that an Anttechian transcends unexpectedly while preparing to undergo fission. In fact, the overwhelming majority of fissions occur without incident, and the overwhelming majority of their transcensions occur in a more planned fashion.

At this time, no one, including the Anttechians themselves, know why some attempted fissions result in transcension instead and others do not. The few transapient Anttechians who have achieved their state in this way are silent on the matter, if they know themselves.

Related Articles
Appears in Topics
Development Notes
Text by Tony Jones
Initially published on 23 December 2003.