I study the behaviour of natural distributed systems, which are systems consisting of many individual units, each acting on its own with no centralised control of the collective. The thousands of tiny interactions between the individuals leads to sophisticated ‘emergent’ behaviour at the group level, such as solving mazes and trade-offs. I spend my time figuring out the mechanisms and simple behavioural rules that individuals use to gain the benefits of emergent collective behaviour, and working out ways we can implement those rules in human systems.
I am a lecturer at Macquarie University, and my main study organisms are ant colonies, as well as the slime mould Physarum polycephalum.
The New World Army ants in the genus Eciton link their bodies together to build complex, dynamic structures that perform a variety of functions for the colony. Such structures include fully functioning temporary nests called bivouacs, which house the workers, queen and brood inside tunnels and chambers made from the colony members themselves, and bridges, ramps, pot-hole plugs and scaffolding structures that allow foraging ants to move more easily through the environment. In tropical Australia, Weaver ants build bridges, hanging chains and pulling chains to explore the environment and build their rolled-leaf nests. I will talk about my recent work conducted on Army ants in Panama and Weaver ants in Townsville, to understand more about how living structures are built by these small animals, using local information and self-organised processes alone. These empirical data will allow me to build computer simulation models to; 1) test that the rules determined by experiment are sufficient for self-assembly in each environmental context; 2) analyse specific self-assembly behaviour properties (stability, convergence, etc.) which provide critical physical parameters for applications in the real world (swarm robotics etc.) and; 3) build a platform for examining the specific individual-level effects of information flow, feedback mechanisms, and other common aspects of collective systems, providing rules for collective function that can generalise to other systems.