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5.3: Societal Computing

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  • The traveling salesman problem is a vital optimization problem (Gutin & Punnen, 2002; Lawler, 1985). It involves determining the order in which a salesman should visit a sequence of cities, stopping at each city only once, such that the shortest total distance is traveled. The problem is tremendously important: a modern bibliography cites 500 studies on how to solve it (Laporte & Osman, 1995).

    One reason for the tremendous amount of research on the traveling salesman problem is that its solution can be applied to a dizzying array of real-world problems and situations (Punnen, 2002), including scheduling tasks, minimizing interference amongst a network of transmitters, data analysis in psychology, X-ray crystallography, overhauling gas turbine engines, warehouse order-picking problems, and wallpaper cutting. It has also attracted so much attention because it is difficult. The traveling salesman problem is an NP-complete problem (Kirkpatrick, Gelatt, & Vecchi, 1983), which means that as the number of cities involved in the salesman’s tour increases linearly, the computational effort for finding the shortest route increases exponentially.

    Because of its importance and difficulty, a number of different approaches to solving the traveling salesman problem have been explored. These include a variety of numerical optimization algorithms (Bellmore & Nemhauser, 1968). Some other algorithms, such as simulated annealing, are derived from physical metaphors (Kirkpatrick, Gelatt, & Vecchi, 1983). Still other approaches are biologically inspired and include neural networks (Hopfield & Tank, 1985; Siqueira, Steiner, & Scheer, 2007), genetic algorithms (Braun, 1991; Fogel, 1988), and molecular computers built using DNA molecules (Lee et al., 2004).

    Given the difficulty of the traveling salesman problem, it might seem foolish to suppose that cognitively simple agents are capable of solving it. However, evidence shows that a colony of ants is capable of solving a version of this problem, which has inspired new algorithms for solving the traveling salesman problem (Dorigo & Gambardella, 1997)!

    One study of the Argentine ant Iridomyrmex humilis used a system of bridges to link the colony’s nest to a food supply (Goss et al., 1989). The ants had to choose between two different routes at two different locations in the network of bridges; some of these routes were shorter than others. When food was initially discovered, ants traversed all of the routes with equal likelihood. However, shortly afterwards, a strong preference emerged: almost all of the ants chose the path that produced the shortest journey between the nest and the food.

    The ants’ solution to the traveling salesmen problem involved an interaction between the world and a basic behavior: as Iridomyrmex humilis moves, it deposits a pheromone trail; the potency of this trail fades over time. An ant that by chance chooses the shortest path will add to the pheromone trail at the decision points sooner than will an ant that has taken a longer route. This means that as other ants arrive at a decision point they will find a stronger pheromone trail in the shorter direction, they will be more likely to choose this direction, and they will also add to the pheromone signal.

    Each ant that passes the choice point modifies the following ant’s probability of choosing left or right by adding to the pheromone on the chosen path. This positive feedback system, after initial fluctuation, rapidly leads to one branch being ‘selected.’ (Goss et al., 1989, p. 581)

    The ability of ants to choose shortest routes does not require a great deal of individual computational power. The solution to the traveling salesman problem emerges from the actions of the ant colony as a whole.

    The selection of the shortest branch is not the result of individual ants comparing the different lengths of each branch, but is instead a collective and self-organizing process, resulting from the interactions between the ants marking in both directions. (Goss et al., 1989, p. 581)

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