Science: Follow the lion's example: Animals are teaching computer scientists a thing or two about effective co-operation, says Darrel Ince

The last decade has seen a huge increase in the number of people who use computer systems; moreover, access patterns are becoming more and more complex, with groups of users co-operating on a common task, such as designing a car, with a computer mediating and co-ordinating all the tasks that each user carries out.

This form of team working, using a computer, raises some interesting and important questions in computer science. How, for example, can such tasks be arranged in the optimal schedule?

To address such questions, researchers are borrowing techniques from biology; in particular from work carried out by those who are studying the group behaviour of insects such as domestic bees.

A typical application for this research is in an area known as concurrent engineering. This is a branch of conventional engineering that is attempting to shorten the lead time required to develop a manufactured product. A company that can release a product faster than its rivals is able to achieve a competitive edge that often lasts for the lifetime of that product. In the car industry, for example, a vehicle manufacturer who releases a new model six months earlier than its competitors can increase its profits by tens of millions of pounds on that model.

In conventional engineering, producing a new product involves a series of steps that are carried out one after another: product specification, product design, manufacturing design and assembly. To speed up the engineering process, concurrent engineering replaces this sequential process with a series of parallel activities that are, as far as possible, carried out at the same time. Unfortunately, developing a product such as a car or a video recorder is a complex process, and a computer is needed to carry out managerial activities such as assigning tasks to engineers, updating engineers when a specification changes and monitoring progress.

Concurrent engineering and other promising areas such as computer supported conferencing, which uses computers to co-ordinate the actions of large teams, are potentially powerful technologies. Unfortunately, major research questions are hindering their spread. For example, there are questions about how the limited amount of human resource on a project can be optimally scheduled in order to minimise delivery time.

There are also questions about the best way to organise a large team that works concurrently: the normal way of organising a project - as a hierarchy of seniority - is not the best way to use staff when there is a high degree of parallelism to the tasks which they have to carry out.

A number of disciplines are being used to solve these problems, including economics, organisation theory, sociology, computer science and cybernetics. However, the most interesting involves the application of field work carried out on insect and animal behaviour.

What attracts researchers to biology is that very simple rules, almost trivial to implement by a computer, enable a collection of animals or insects to carry out very complex tasks. This elevates their collective skills to the point where their behaviour is like that of a super organism. For example, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University have been using observations carried out on lion prides to study resource allocation in computer-supported work. They are attempting to translate into task-allocation terms the observation that prides of lions trade the benefit of an increased chance of catching an animal for food against the size of the share for individual members of a pack when an animal is caught.

Another area where researchers are confident of deriving useful results involves the behaviour of bees. For example, swarms of bees carry out the task of gathering and storing food using two simple rules: first, nectar-storing bees unload nectar from collector bees returning to the hive at a rate that is proportional to the richness of the nectar; second, if bees are unloaded rapidly they recruit other bees to help them to gather from their food source. These two rules result in more bees collecting better nectar from richer food sources.

What is impressive about these areas of research, particularly in the insect world, is that they hold out the promise that simple rules to do with communication and task scheduling can produce groups of workers whose power is much greater than the sum of the capabilities of the individual workers. There is also the promise that large tasks we cannot even dream about now can be carried out by networks of computers and people, mediated by a small number of simple rules.

The author is professor of computer science at the Open University.

(Photograph omitted)

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
tech

Apple has been hit by complaints about the 1.1GB download

Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff
tv

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
Life and Style
i100

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst – 2 year fixed term contract – Kent – Circa £55k

£45000 - £55000 Per Annum 31 days holiday, pension, healthcare, annual bonus: ...

Experienced Foundation Teacher

£100 - £222 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recruiting f...

SEN Learning Support Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: SEN TA's apply now! West Midlands

Network Infrastructure Technical Lead - up to £45k DOE - Surrey

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week