Workers of the World! There Is Efficiency in Idleness

By Carl Engelking | August 16, 2018 1:00 pm
(Credit: Radu Bercan/shutterstock)

(Credit: Radu Bercan/shutterstock)

In Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel, Player Piano, things get a little awkward after industrialist Dr. Paul Proteus, escorted in a black government limo, passes a crew of “Reeks and Wrecks,” or displaced laborers who could no longer compete economically with the machines that filled factories like Proteus’ Illium Works.

In the street, some 40 construction workers are hunched over shovels and pitchforks, all watching a single man fill a two-foot-wide pothole. With an abundance of idle hands, it’s no wonder the machines conquered the factory floor! At least that’s one takeaway here from Vonnegut — that, and a nihilistic commentary on the linkages between human dignity and work.

However, contrary to industrialist dogma, sitting around and doing absolutely nothing could be one of the best ways to boost the productivity of the wider group, especially for worker ants on excavation duty for their colony.

That’s the insight from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology who monitored the excavation operations of fire ant colonies to arrive at this counterintuitive conclusion.

Building an Ant Colony

GIT physics professor Daniel Goldman and colleagues monitored the activities of 30 ants with painted abdomens to identify each individual. They noticed that only a small number of workers did most of the digging, while the rest of the ants just sat around on their tarsal claws. When a busy ant grew fatigued, an idle ant would step into duty for a spell. Sometimes a worker ant would enter a tunnel and simply turn around without a payload. Inefficient, right? Not so.

When Goldman and team mathematically modeled this apparent inequality of labor, they found that 30 percent of the ants doing 70 percent of the work was actually the most efficient use of their labor pool.

If too many ants jumped into tunneling duty, it caused traffic jams and clogs in the tunnels, while too few ants working also hampered productivity. By adjusting the balance of ants working versus sitting idle, the colony instinctively found the sweet-spot for maximum efficiency.

Robot Construction Crews

The ants, it turns out, were exquisitely modeling what’s known as the fundamental diagram of traffic flow, which plots a clear connection between the density of traffic and vehicle velocity. By looking at the chart, you can easily calculate the most efficient balance between speed and volume. Metered on-ramps and “Lexus lanes” are a few tricks traffic engineers use to bring our commutes closer to the Goldilocks zones on the fundamental diagram.

And, in a true Player Piano twist, these researchers’ investigation of the efficiencies of idleness could help make swarming robots more useful.

Researchers constructed an ant-inspired optimization model that they then loaded into autonomous robots who were given a tunneling task. Using the example set by ants, the autonomous bots avoided mechanized clogs and finished the job in the most energy efficient manner possible. Researchers published their findings Wednesday in the journal Science.

Using anty logic to optimize the movements of autonomous swarms of tunneling robots, researchers say, could improve their efficacy in disaster recovery, mining or even building underground shelters for planetary explorers.

On the other hand, these hyper-efficient robot swarms could simply send a large contingent of red-blooded laborers into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps to dawdle with their picks and shovels while watching someone else finish the job.

Let’s hope for the former.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology, top posts
  • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

    Finally there is scientific justification for what I did most of my 30 years in the workplace.

    • OWilson

      In business we call it redundant contingency.

      We have to ensure our clients and their members no interruption of service, so we always have a spare computer, fully tested and configured for our network, sitting there ready to go in the event one of our workstations breaks down.

      Surprising that I have to sometimes explain why that expensive piece of equipment is “just sitting there, doing nothing!”

      (IRS, FBI, State Department, please take note!) :)

      • jonathanpulliam

        Tell me about it. I used to lay out the PWB mother boards at Stratus Computers.

        • OWilson

          Speaking of “Workers of the World Uniting”, I’m reminded of the stories a dear old grandmother of a girlfriend, who fled from the Ukraine with whatever she could carry, when the Red Army invaded and devastated what was then the “breadbasket of Europe”.

          They confiscated everything of value naturally, but also took the granaries of the seed corn that were “just sitting there”, to feed their army, ensuring that no more food would ever be grown again for a very long time.

          The rest is history!

  • Uncle Al

    … Ontological confusions vs. epistemically suspect beliefs.

    Socialism, “Life is meaningless. Mortality refutes Day Planners.”
    Capitalism, “High scores are meaningful. Mediocrity is a vice of the doomed.”

    • jonathanpulliam

      The meek shall inherit the Earth

  • OWilson

    Every morning with my coffee, I watched a long single file line of tiny ants scampering along the top my patio wall in both directions. The funny thing was every time they met another ant coming in the opposite direction they stopped and made brief contact then carried on. No exceptions.

    Of course they were Dominican Republic ants, and like the folks down there on the street you always get a smile, or a “Hola” from almost everybody you meet! :)

  • jonathanpulliam

    Eu vi uma fila de formigas
    La no capital da republica
    Federativa do Brasil e esse
    Distrito Federal que se chama “Brasilia”
    Nao foi planejeado muito bem
    Pois campos de grama imensos
    Nao conformando bem com os
    Cotadinhos pedestre sofredores
    Mas as linhas formadas pelas formiguinhas
    Sao retas. Impressionante.


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