The robot was created by the researchers to simulate the one-to-one tutoring behavior of rock ants, which allows one ant who has found a new, superior home to educate another ants on how to get there.
The results, which were just published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, show that the majority of the crucial aspects of teaching in these ants are now understood as a machine can take the role of the teaching ant.
Tandem running, in which one ant guides another ant gently along a path to the new nest, is essential to this teaching process. Once the student ant has mastered the path, it can return home on its own, lead a tandem run to the new nest with a partner, and so on.
Teaching is so important in our own lives that we spend a great deal of time either instructing others or being taught ourselves. This should cause us to wonder whether teaching actually occurs among non-human animals. And, in fact, the first case in which teaching was demonstrated rigorously in any other animal was in an ant.
Nigel Franks, Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
The team sought to ascertain what was required and adequate for such instruction. TO develop a robot that could successfully play the role of the tacher, the team needs to have a good understanding of all the key components of this procedure.
The researchers built a big arena so there was a reasonable distance between the ants’ old nest, which was intentionally made to be of low quality, and a new much better one that ants could be led to by a robot.
To allow the scientists to control the robot’s movement along straight or wavy paths, a miniature sliding robot was mounted on a gantry that could move back and forth above the arena. The robot was given pheromones from an ant instructor by means of attractive smell glands taken from a worker ant.
Franks added, “We waited for an ant to leave the old nest and put the robot pin, adorned with attractive pheromones, directly ahead of it. The pinhead was programmed to move towards the new nest either on a straight path or on a beautifully sinuous one.”
“We had to allow for the robot to be interrupted in its journey, by us, so that we could wait for the following ant to catch up after it had looked around to learn landmarks. When the follower ant had been led by the robot to the new nest, we allowed it to examine the new nest and then, in its own time, begin its homeward journey. We then used the gantry automatically to track the path of the returning ant,” Franks further stated.
The scientists discovered that the apprentice ant had been successfully taught the path by the robot. Whether they took a circuitous route or a direct one, the ants always understood how to go back to the old nest.
Franks stated, “A straight path might be quicker but a winding path would provide more time in which the following ant could better learn landmarks so that it could find its way home as efficiently as if it had been on a straight path.”
He concluded, “Crucially, we could compare the performance of the ants that the robot had taught with ones that we carried to the site of the new nest and that had not had an opportunity to learn the route. The taught ants found their way home much more quickly and successfully.”
Undergraduates Edward Jarvis, who was an MSc. student in Professor Nigel Franks’ lab, and Jacob Podesta, a York Ph.D. student at present, carried out the experiments. Dr. Alan Worley programmed the gantry, and Dr. Ana Sendova-Franks oversaw all the statistical analysis.
Their approach should enable further investigation into the precise components of effective education.
Franks, N. R., et al. (2022) Robotic communication with ants. Journal of Experimental Biology. doi:10.1242/jeb.244106.