Isn't it more like we discovered an algorithm that they know well, considering that they came up with it first?
Prabhakar said that had this discovery been made in the 1970s, before TCP was written, harvester ants very well could have influenced the design of the Internet.
Here's the written story of Feynman's experimentation with ants if anyone is interested: http://books.google.com/books?id=7papZR4oVssC&pg=PA94...
Once at NetApp there was a question about whether or not we were wasting all of our time randomly seeking the drives (drive seeks being of course the worst if you're looking to improve performance). But the code paths were very complex, asynchronous, and difficult to model. We figured it out by injecting random seeks which was pretty easy to do. You could flood the disk driver with random seeks and get the 'floor' of performance, then you could back off on the random seek injection to see where performance started to pick up. That told us that counter to our thinking we weren't actually being plagued by seeks, the performance issue was elsewhere in the system.
That the ants had, through natural selection, derived a congestion control system that is very close to the TCP one is a fun result because it suggests that the TCP one is probably close to optimal. (Ants have been working on it a lot longer)
First, given the huge diversity of life on Earth, how can we argue that any species is "optimal".
Secondly, the same argument could be made of life 500 million years ago, that it had been evolving for so long that it must be optimal, no?
I would also take issue with what you see as a common misunderstanding. Evolution is, by it's very definition a process which adapts to a specific environment. Nothing more, no design, but optimal for any given environmental condition. When the environment changes rapidly, the pace of evolution increases, and vice versa. I don't think this is commonly misunderstood at all. Some people will always have no clue and of course there are those that think the fossils were planted by god, but aside from the out of band idiots, evolution is commonly correctly understood.
Is it optimal for all possible cases? We can't say, just like a rock rolling into a gully has achieved the lowest potential energy it can when considered as a section of terrain it sits in, may not have the lowest energy possible when you consider the whole planet. So for the carpenter ants, which have a worst case generation length of roughly 15 years  over a million years you have at least 67 thousand generations in which to find the lowest energy solution. So for the food gathering problem I would expect its pretty close to optimal.
Really? Think about humans, in our current environment, can you not think of any adaptations to our bodies that would improve us as a species? If in 100 million years our environment doesn't change at all (hypothetical) will we not evolve any more?
Original article: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/327/5964/439.abstract
This is because the Tokyo Rail System engineers didn't have the same concerns, that tunnels would suddenly get cut off and blocked.
Ants have algorithms. If you think about an ant colony, it's a computing device; there's some wonderful work by Jean-Louis Deneubourg in Brussels and his collaborators that really started this field in a way with Ilya Prigogine and later on Jean Louis Deneubourg looking at the ways in which social insect colonies can interact. One example would be—it sounds trivial, but if you think about it, it is quite difficult—how can a colony decide between two food sources, one of which is slightly closer than the other? Do they have to measure this? Do they have to perform these computations?
 : http://edge.org/3rd_culture/couzin08/couzin08_index.html
I've always been fascinated by the collective intelligence of an ant colony. This drives it home even more.
It is a very similar situation to the inside of any organism. You have a bunch of cells, none of which has significant intelligence, but which follow a set of protocols that allows them to work together and form an organism capable of duplication. Or you can look at how a single cell is composed of molecules that follow a set of even simpler protocols that still causes self duplication. Or you can look at how a bunch of atoms came together in such a way that allowed self duplication, and error propagation, until the 'arms race' between these molecules led to the creation of a group of entities who cannot even comprehend how such a system can occur without thinking of the single molecules as being alive.
Personally, I appreciate the mathematical elegance that flowers use to optimize their leaf coverage. (They start with an even arrangement of growth hormone, and then the region that is over crowded has less hormone then the region that is under-crowded, so new leaves grow where they are most needed, resulting in Fibonacci spirals).
Sorry if this post came across as condescending, but I feel that blind awe at the intelligence of nature tends to diminish the mathematical elegance it exploits; I much prefer to view ants as an example of an extremely simple and elegant algorithm that can make use of many stupid entities, as apposed to a massive hive-mind, with access to the brain power of thousands of ants, that still can't do better then the simple algorithm.
My point is that there is more here than simple math, and it does deserve awe. There is collective intelligence. Ants in a group have an understanding of their surroundings in ways that we cannot comprehend. I tend to view them as neurons of a larger brain. Each neuron receives inputs, processes, and gives an output based on a very simple formula. Put a few hundred million of them together, and you get something that math cannot describe: consciousness. Ants individually are very simple creatures, but en masse are greater than the sum of the parts.
I don't think they are the end all be all of evolution nor do I think their methods particularly apply to us, but I think they are worthy of admiration.
Well, this is not far off:
Read Richard Feynman for more details, he explains it well.
I'm a native English speaker, and have no trouble understand the sentence. However, I kind of slacked off in elementary school and high school English classes so I can't actually explain WHY we use the singular 'discover' when the discovery is made by two people, and we use the plural 'discovers' when the discovery is made by one person.
I really should learn my native language sometime!
The link provided by jacobolus should tell you all you need to know.
An ant may randomly leave a pheromone trail, which ensures that other, perhaps more attractive food sources are not missed. In general, the stronger the signal, the faster ants move with the less probability of diverging from the path.
This strategy ensures optimal area exploitation under varying conditions. For instance, if the food is concentrated in one or a few locations, you'll see a single column between the nest and the source, but when the food is scattered through the area, the ants would disperse too.
Source: an excellent book "Cells, Embryos and Evolution" where it was used as an example of how complex and seemingly organized and directed behavior could be achieved by a population of identical individuals acting under uniform rules.
Also, I remember learning about the pheromone trail years ago as established fact, so I'm pretty sure they are talking about a different system. It would be interesting to look at how the two interact (along with the other systems they use we have yet to discover).
The paper: http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fj...
I do know that most communication is done via chemical exchange between individuals, but as far the "algorithms" the ants use, I don't know much about them. I'm sure it has been fine-tuned over millions of years though ;).
Also, given there small size, I can't imagine how they could have an effective central command structure, especially when there are simple protocols that allow each ant to act autonomously while still being highly effective for the hive.