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Chagrin Falls, OH 44022
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Press Archives

Swarm intelligence The next generation of technology is modeled on insects
By: Erika D. Smith, Staff Reporter-
Ohio Beacon Journal.

What if computers could make decisions for themselves?

What if you dropped a batch of computer parts onto a deserted island and they built a civilized communications network all by themselves?

What if your doctor injected a swarm of microchips to attack a hard-to-reach tumor?

A few years ago, those were very big ifs. But a Chagrin Falls startup named Bluetronix Inc. says it is closing in on the technology that could make all of that possible.

Sound scary?

Well, there's no need for a gun-toting Gov. Schwarzenegger just yet. We're not talking artificial intelligence -- just swarm intelligence.

As the name implies, swarm intelligence is a scientific theory based on the actions of ants, bees and other insects. It asserts complex behavior can emerge from a group of individuals -- whether they're bugs or computer nodes -- that follow simple rules.

Swarm intelligence isn't exactly new, but it's largely uncharted territory.

Virtually no one has developed a product that applies its principles. But the founders of Bluetronix Inc. say they will do it by 2006.

The Chagrin Falls company is writing the mathematical formulas for an all-new, super-efficient wireless network for the military. From there, company President Mark Heiferling hopes to parlay their work into other industries, such as manufacturing and supply-chain management.

They say the possibilities for swarm intelligence products are endless.

``The military has the funding, sense of urgency and need. It's a good place to start,'' Heiferling said ``Later, we can bridge that over to the commercial world.''

Biologists long ago noticed the amazing feats social insects are capable of, but swarm intelligence is a relatively novel concept among computer scientists and researchers.

Take termites, for example. Individually, they have meager intelligence and work with no supervision. But collectively, they build dirt mounds that can maintain a constant temperature and the right mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Their teamwork is largely self-organized and coordinated through the interactions of individuals. Although these interactions might be primitive, taken together, they result in highly efficient solutions to difficult problems, such as finding the shortest route to a food source.

It's this efficiency that caught the attention of researchers.

In the 1990s, companies such as McGraw-Hill, Capital One and Southwest Airlines applied studies on swarm intelligence to their operations. Some early adopters revamped their shipping strategies. Others reorganized the way their employees work. Almost every company cut costs as a result. Southwest alone estimates an annual savings of more than $10 million.

The inherent efficiency of swarm intelligence also has intrigued computer scientists.

Many have applied the concept to communications networking -- an obvious choice because finding the shortest route to connect a phone call or an e-mail is always the goal.

Researchers at Hewlett-Packard have already designed a program that would route calls based on how ants forage for food. Their findings also could cut down on network congestion, eliminating the kind of communications bottlenecks that occurred in last year's blackout.

However, there's a bigger goal out there for computer scientists.

Swarm intelligence may be the key to managing the world's increasingly complex network of computers. The systems are growing so big and overlapping so fast that humans won't be able to maintain them directly for much longer.

``It will get to the point that it will be impossible to do,'' said Ronaldo Menezes, a Florida Institute of Technology assistant professor who specializes in swarm intelligence. ``... I think people are pretty much convinced that computer scientists are reaching the limits of what we can do.''

By modeling programming codes after social insects, computer scientists hope a sort of self-organization will occur. That would take some of the burden off humans.

For example, swarm intelligence could help route incoming traffic to a Web site, preventing clogs or clearing them quickly. That way, technicians wouldn't have to be called every time a slowdown occurs.

The programming wouldn't be complex for the individual computer nodes on a swarm network. Like ignorant ants, they would only have simple rules, such as ``Don't route Internet traffic to this port when this happens.'' They wouldn't know their goal, but they would make decisions based on their programming and the goal should emerge.

``We hope the system will self-organize and conform to the optimum (solution) without us having to program what the optimum is,'' Menezes said.

Such a network would have to be extremely flexible and able to adapt immediately to changing environments, just as social insects do.

``I used to kill the ants in my house... and now I think twice about the poor little things,'' Menezes said. ``It's really quite amazing.''

Wireless swarms

Bluetronix is determined to push the envelope even further.

They are writing algorithms based on swarm intelligence for a completely wireless network.

Now, that may not seem like much to the average Web surfer. You might take your laptop to Borders Books & Music every day to tap into its wireless network. But the truth is, every wireless network in use today is hardwired somewhere -- even if you don't see it.

Bluetronix hopes to change that.

The Defense Department approved a $750,000 contract with the company to develop a self-contained, self-sufficient wireless network. With that technology, soldiers could communicate and transmit data in even the most desolate areas.

For example, if the National Guard were deployed to a state where an earthquake had destroyed all the wired infrastructure for 100 square miles, establishing a data network would be difficult. If those same soldiers were carrying Bluetronix technology, so-called ``swarm chips'' would automatically detect each other and organize themselves into a network.

Such a network would have to be flexible and adapt quickly to keep up with soldiers moving around the field. Neither are traits associated with the current top-down, centralized approach to controlling computer systems.

That's why Bluetronix turned to swarm intelligence.

``It's taking something in nature and turning it into codes and algorithms,'' Heiferling said.

Bluetronix says it could have a workable product for the military within two years.

As for the high-tech cancer treatments and other science-fiction solutions, we may have to wait a bit longer.

 

White papers on our products and technologies are available upon request. E-mail us at innovation@bluetronix.net or call 440.247.3434.

   
     
     
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