Ant Colony: Inspiration for algorithms shaping the future from mathematics to robotics and self-driving cars

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Emergent behavior in complex adaptive Ant colony: Inspiration for algorithms from mathematics to robotics and self-driving cars.

Many of us view ants as useless and annoying insects. Once you observe and study the behavior of ants you will see they are one of the most fascinating and collectively efficient, adaptive, and smart creatures; and modeling their behavior can lead to science fiction like world changing discoveries and innovations in a multitude of applications.

Some ants can carry over 100 times their own body weight and change the size and shape of the pads on their feet depending on the load they are carrying. Astonishing behaviors emerge from collective groups of ants interacting with each other and the environment.

Studies aimed at understanding and modeling the behavior of ants and other insects and species such as fish and birds can provide inspiration for the development of algorithms for solving difficult mathematical and computational problems. Some applications include network routing, robotics, and urban transportation systems. Imagine groups of robots that can communicate with each other to achieve a certain goal, adapt to the environment, and change their shape depending on the environment, whether they have to run, jump, swim, fly, or walk!

More than 10,000 known ant species exist around the world. Ants are adaptive and social creatures, they communicate by using chemicals known as pheromones that can alert others of danger or lead them to a food source. One ant by itself is not smart, however, when you have a group of ants interacting with each other and the environment, complex outcome is produced. This is a phenomenon known as Emergence. In addition, Stigmergy occurs when elements of the system interact indirectly through the environment. This behavior is also known as Swarm Intelligence, it consist typically of a population of simple agents interacting locally with one another and with their environment.

Imagine if we could mimic this behavior by developing a swarm of self-organized adaptable robots, sensors, connected objects that can be released to accomplish specific tasks, search and discover the physical space, be used for search and rescue, and wildlife conservation initiatives, or a swarm of driverless cars autonomously finding the shortest path for their routes!

In summary, studies of ants’ behavior have shown that: Ants drop pheromones as they move.   Ants have preference to follow high pheromone trails. More pheromones will accumulate on the shortest path.  Ants use stigmergy to find the shortest path between home and food. Pheromone deposit left by ants manifests stigmergy. When ants face an obstacle between nest and food  they choose to turn left or right with equal probabilities.  After some time period all ants have chosen the shorter path.

In grad school, I became fascinated with Artificial Intelligence and decided to research Ant Colony Optimization for my theses. I used an algorithmic approach to simulate ant colony behavior and focused on the Stigmergic Emergent behavior in complex adaptive ant colony.

I experimented with interactions of multiple parameters including multiple food sources, obstructions, two types of pheromones, and use of full grid.

Parameters of the model:

    • Number of ants
    • Grid size
    • Ant’s pheromone level and pheromone capacity
    • Pheromone capacity and level are changed by the same multiple.
    • Single vs. multiple food source.
    • Distance between food and home
    • No obstruction versus obstructions


Some questions that I addressed:

Does it help to have more ants? How many ants is enough?  Should ants have large stores of pheromones for their travel or is it better for them to have small stores? What factors must be adjusted when the distance between home and food changes? What is affected when obstructions are introduced into the grid?


Simulation Findings: If one parameter of the model changes, we can produce stigmergic behavior by making some appropriate changes in the values of other parameters.

  • The environmental factors, such as, place of food, place of home, obstructions, single or multiple food sources, or the grid size affect behavior, but they are not the determining factors.
  • Internal variables are the determining factors.
  • Pheromone capacity and the number of ants are internal determining variables.
  • Distance between home and food is the most important environmental variable.
  • As the home-food distance increases, both the pheromone capacity and the number of ants must be increased to achieve convergence to stigmergic behavior.
  • For each value of the home-food distance there is a minimum pheromone capacity that could lead to convergence.
  • Although more ants are required when the distance increases, no specific mathematical   formula between distance and number of ants was observed.
  • For each distance multiple, a minimum threshold for the number of ants is required for convergence.


UCI Beall Center for Art + Technology

UCI Beall Center for Art + Technology

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A conversation with Samantha Younghans-Haug, Program Director at University of California Irvine Beall Center for Art + Technology.

Interactive Art that uses different forms of science and technology to engage the senses; collaborations among artists, scientists and technologists to spark new ideas and discoveries….


I had the opportunity for a Q&A with Samantha Younghans-Haug, Program Director at the Beall Center for Art + Technology.


1- Can you tell me a little about the UCI Beall Center and what you do at the UCI Beall Center? 

The Beall Center promotes new forms of creative expression by: exhibiting art that uses different forms of science and technology to engage the senses; building innovative scholarly relationships and community collaborations between artists, scientists and technologists; encouraging research and development of art forms that can affect the future; reintroducing artistic and creative thinking into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) integrated learning in K-12 to Higher Education.I am the programs director at the Beall Center, and really handle just about anything and everything that comes my way – from developing & collaborating on new programs such as our new middle and high school Expressive Robotics Camp, and putting on events such as Family Days, lectures, workshops & openings, to figuring out how to trouble-shoot technology issues, working with exhibition installers and artists, training docents, editing exhibition catalogs, writing grants and putting together marketing materials both printed and online, writing press releases, and of course managing all the day to day business that happens. I work closely with and have learned a lot from my colleague and friend David Familian who is the curator and Artistic Director of the Beall. I am also involved in STEAM education initiatives and work with individuals on a county and national level, and am a contributor to the developments around the OC Mini Maker Faire.


2- What inspired you to start the Beall Center?

The Beall Center first opened its doors in 2000, years before I began which was in 2006.  The Beall Center received its initial support from the Rockwell Corporation in honor of retired chairman Don Beall and his wife, Joan, the core idea being to merge their lifelong passions – technology, business and the arts – in one place.  Here is a link to learn more about Don Beall:


3- What type of community programs and events do you have at the Beall Center?

Family Day is our most popular community event and is offered twice a year in conjunction with each exhibition.  Typical Family Days provide demonstrations by local companies in manufacturing, programming, engineering, optics, arts and design. I try to bring together an eclectic grouping of individuals from around the community and from various colleges and universities.  In addition I like to invite young adults (or individuals of any age) who are excited about something they’ve made to come and demonstrate or show off their work.  We have an active student body involved in various clubs from DIY clubs and computer programming/hackers to poetry and music clubs, and it is always fun to have them participate in Family Day, when they are available.  I also typically have a wonderful group of volunteers from the UCI school of Education participating, and of course our wonderful Beall Docent staff.  I believe that Family Day presents a unique learning experience not only for our visitors, but also for our UCI students and participants.  I’ve seen a lot of networking and new projects come out of Family Day.We also provide our new Expressive Robotics camp that emphasizes programming expressive & responsive movement, and we offer all levels of tours from elementary to college level to senior groups.  Tours are sometimes matched with lectures and simple hands-on art and tech projects.


4- What type of exhibitions do you hold at the Beall Center? What makes an exhibition most interesting? Can you describe one of the past exhibitions that was most inspirational to you?

Every exhibit at the Beall is different and all are inspiring to me in many ways.  Just check out the past exhibitions listed on our website.  It really amazes me the works that people envision and produce.  One of my favorite exhibits was Paul Vanouse’s “Evidence” (Feb 2013).  The exhibit included his work titled “Latent Figure Protocol”, a performative biological media installation that used DNA samples to create emergent representational images. The installation was a live scientific experiment employing a reactive gel and electrical current that produced images that relate directly to the DNA samples used. The Docents and I would “perform” the experiments every 3 days throughout the exhibition, with each image slowly fading to nothing by day 3.  Not having any personal experience with the sciences, it was really exciting working with this new art medium (DNA!).  ( other exhibit that was really one of the most interesting and inspirational to me was “EX-I-09” (April 2009) by artist Shih Chieh Huang (CJ).  I am interested in kinetic works (either interactive, responsive or…) that create new and unusual environments, and I am also very interested in the repurposing of materials – and this was CJ.  Amazing, work!  It made me want to go out and start making things. (


5- How do you think the concept of Art + Technology has evolved in the community since the start of the Beall Center? How do you think better understanding of the connections between Art and Technology will help shape new forms of creations and disruptive technologies?

The Beall Center provides a unique space in our community to see the convergent works of collaborating artists and technologists.  We hope that people come to the Beall, interact with the works & space, and leave imagining new things, and inspired to create and innovate.  Being tucked away on a campus makes it hard for the community to discover the Beall, and so we have our challenges.  I believe our community events help us tremendously to get the word out.  We always ask that when people come to the Beall Center that they always come back with a new person and that person comes back with a new person, and so on and so on.  A lot of our visitors arrive either by word of mouth or by chance discover or just stumble in lost on campus (those visitors are always fun).  We would really like to be brighter on the radar of art & tech, and we believe that over the past few years this is happening more and more.  We were recently awarded a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.  Successes like that help put us on the forefront.I believe that as our culture and society continues to evolve and change with or because of technology that it is even more important to stimulate imagination to advance creativity and innovation.  There has been a big push for STEM education, and I believe that the arts in all its wonderful forms (fine arts, crafts, dance, music, design, prose & poetry, lyrics & language) must also be included and valued just as importantly, otherwise we will continue with the same paths.  I believe using our imaginations to become creative causes us to care and causes us to change our way of thinking and then opens us up to so many possibilities. Arts+STEM or STEAM, or whatever anyone wants to call it is important in all its varied forms (individual disciplines, multi/inter/trans-disciplinary, etc.).  I also believe that collaborations among artists, scientists and technologists bring about new ideas and discoveries.  When people work together and combine their research and practices amazing things can happen.  Often engineers think differently them artists, neither is better, but together they experience in different ways and can learn from one another.  Okay, just getting a little too philosophical here…


6- Anything else you would like to add?

I didn’t come to this position at the Beall as an art and technology person.  My background was twofold & separate – art and business.  I’ve learned a lot being here, and I am extremely thankful for the many different people I’ve come to know and learn from over the years.


Mathematics in Nature and in Art

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From paintings and monuments inspired by mathematics of nature, to complicated and beautiful shapes created from simple math equations

The tight connection between Art and Mathematics is fascinating ; they have had a long historical relationship dating back to 2,560 BC. From artists and architects inspired by mathematics in creating their paintings and monuments, to mathematicians developing mathematical models which result in amazing complex patterns and designs.

“The universe is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures. Artists who strive and seek to study nature must therefore first fully understand mathematics. On the other hand, mathematicians have sought to interpret and analyze art through the lens of geometry and rationality. ” – Galileo Galilei


Going back in history, evidence of mathematics influence has been seen as far back as 2,560 BC; in monuments such as the Great Pyramids and the Coliseum. Also, painters and philosophers observed geometric shapes and patterns in nature and made use of mathematics in their work; incorporation of realistic shadows, angle of lights, reflections, and perspectives. Piero della Francesca (c.1415-1492), an early Renaissance artist, was also a mathematician and authored many books on perspective and geometry. Graphic artist M.C. Escher (1898—1972) was known for his mathematically inspired work; he used polygons or shapes such as squares, and triangles to create his art.

In conjunction with the artists’ use of mathematics in art, mathematicians have developed mathematical functions that can result in fascinating and complex patterns and shapes.

One example is Fractal art. Fractals represent objects with self-similarity; each shape is made of smaller copies of itself. Fractals are seen in nature in many instances such as trees, roots of trees, the human heart, lungs, kidney, vegetables, mountains, sand dunes, granite patterns, and many more. Have you ever looked down from the window on a plane and noticed the pattern of rivers? This is an example of fractals in nature; small rivers combine to form the larger river. Cauliflower is another interesting example of Fractals seen in nature.  If you look at the shape of a cauliflower, then cut it into pieces, each small piece looks like the larger piece but it’s smaller.


photo 2

Photo by Azi Sharif



Fractals in the world of mathematics are beautiful complex images that can be produced by iterating simple equations. One of the most well known examples of Fractals is the Mandelbrot set invented by Benoit Mandelbrot. It shows how iteration of a simple equation can result in amazing shapes with such complications, harmony and beauty.


                                               Mandelbrot set applet 

And more fascinating images created by Math!

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Wolfram Demonstration Projects, Flower Fractals

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Wolfram Demonstration Projects, Generating Patterns Similar to Peruvian Textiles



Neuroscience, Games, Zebrafish: Life changing discoveries

Neuroscience, Games, Zebrafish: Life changing discoveries

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The power of interdisciplinary collaboration and observations from nature for life changing discoveries

The Arts, Sciences, Engineering, and Nature: A game to help neuroscience research, a fish to help cure diseases, fascinating findings from  “The Koch Institute Public Galleries”

During a recent trip to Massachusetts, I had a couple of hours to stroll around Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)  and was fascinated with my findings. Walking on Main Street, I saw art work displayed with striking colors through the window and decided to check it out. It turned out to be what is known as “The Koch Institute Public Galleries”.

The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, located at the MIT campus, is a cancer research center with multidisciplinary researchers from across biology, chemistry, mechanical engineering, material science, and other disciplines.

The Koch Institute Public Galleries displays striking images of cutting edge science and technological innovations in cancer research. They closely show the connection of art, nature, and technology and demonstrate the significant role that nature plays for life changing discoveries and innovations. Did you know that studying a tropical freshwater minnow known as the Zebrafish can help identify genetic conditions that lead to cures for devastating diseases such as cancer?

Here are some of my favorite pieces from the gallery.


Pathways of nerve fibers through the brain in three dimensions

Pathways of nerve fibers

Zeynep Saygin, Kanwisher Laboratory, MIT Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences

This image shows the pathways of nerve fibers through the brain in three dimensions; up/down in blue, front/back in green, left/right in red. Studying these maps of connectivity, helps researchers understand healthy brain development and enable earlier diagnosis and interventions for conditions such as autism and dyslexia.


 A game for mapping the 3D structure of our neurons


Alex Norton for EyeWire Seung Laboratory, MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and MIT Media Lab

This image shows ganglion cells in the retina generated from EyeWire. EyeWire is a game for mapping the 3D structure of our neurons built by researchers from Seung Lab at MIT. This way, anyone, anywhere in the world with no background in neuroscience can participate in this game and contribute to neuroscience research. This heeyewirelps researchers discover how neurons connect and network to process information. In order to study and look at structure of neurons, researchers have to analyze many images, and need human intelligence to help analyze the images. The player starts with a segment of a neuron and is tasked to find the rest of the neuron.



A fish that can help identify genetic conditions that lead to cures for cancer and muscular diseases


Annie Cavanagh, David McCarthy School of Pharmacy University College London

Did you know that studying a tropical freshwater minnow known as the zebrafish can help identify genetic conditions that lead to cures for devastating diseases such as cancer?

In fact, It shares 70% of our genetic code, it is transparent and can repair its own heart!

By mapping the zebrafish genome and studying irregularities in their development, researchers have been able to create models of how vertebrates develop, and identify genetic conditions that lead to diseases such as cancer. This image shows a false-color scanning electron micrograph of a zebrafish embryo.

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