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An Ant Ballet, Choreographed By Pheromones And Robots

Can behavior be designed? Yes. Especially in ants.

An Ant Ballet, Choreographed By Pheromones And Robots

Ants are daunting and fascinating. Somehow, nature has bred the archetypal society at the smallest of scales, one in which every entity knows their role and contributes to the greater good. They live with a basic, unrelenting discipline to their fellow ant.

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“I’ve always been fascinated by ants–they develop incredibly complex systems via seemingly arbitrary and simple rules,” designer Ollie Palmer tells Co.Design. “Essentially, I’ve been hacking ant communication protocols for the past couple of years.”

Palmer’s project, Ant Ballet, is an augmentation of ant societal behavior. By appealing to their most base instincts–hacking the pheromone signals that ants rely upon for communication–Palmer is able to manipulate ants, to choreograph their movements. To do so, he deploys a robotic arm that drops powdered synthetic pheromones (created by UCL Organic Chemistry). These trails are irresistible for the ants to follow. They’re pulled by the strings of their societal engine.

“I think the piece allows viewers to reflect on their own role within human society,” writes Palmer. “Looking at the ants on the machine, we have a sort of ‘God-like’ perspective. We can see the ants following the trails, and the machine that made them. They can’t see the machine, and can’t tell the trails from their own. It’s a perspective we never get to see ourselves.”

But humans are different from ants, right? It’s not like we’re coaxed into action by the constant allure of scantily clad models, glistening cheeseburgers, or the promise of happy tears Hallmark moments! The more I consider Ant Ballet, the more I feel like an ant, crawling my way from one predictable service or good to another. Whatever free will I have that ants don’t suddenly seems trivial, because if I had so much autonomy of identity, I wouldn’t be so demographically poised to enjoy NBA basketball, NBC’s Thursday comedy lineup, or superhero movies.

A tracing of the path that the ants are taking.

As for the Ant Ballet, Palmer has only begun the first of four phases of behavior hacking. “The next phases involve a lot more tech development: autonomous control systems, human/ant interaction, and intercontinental ant communication. It’s going to be a fun few years!” he writes. But in the immediate, you can see the Ant Ballet for yourself. Ant Ballet: Phase I will be on display at FutureEverything until June 10th.

[Hat Tip: We Make Money Not Art]

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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