The anti-virus software that's modelled on ants

Digital insects could swarm to clear your PC of bugs, worms and viruses

For most people, the reaction to discovering that your computer has a bug is to throw your hands in the air, swear and call a friend. That might be about to change, now that researchers have discovered a fresh approach to computer security that takes real-life bugs as its inspiration. Their idea? Hordes of "digital ants" that find and destroy viruses and computer worms on your PC.

The team has studied angry ant swarms, which converge on an enemy and then overwhelm it. By copying this behaviour ("swarm intelligence") the researchers think they can create vast numbers of virtual insects to patrol your computer. Each of the 3,000 digital ants would be primed to search for a different threat. If they find one, the rest of the ants help eliminate deadly viruses before they can do any damage.

It may seem peculiar to look to insects for guidance - but the technology industry has been using the natural world in this way for years, in a discipline known as biomimetics.

Countless inventors have looked to the world around them for ideas, with the best known example probably being Velcro, devised in the 40s by a Swiss engineer who took his inspiration from the way burdock seeds hooked on to his clothes. More recently architects have studied the air-cooling system in termite mounds to help design energy-efficient buildings, while engineers in Leeds built a cane that uses bat-like echo-location to help blind people find their way.

While copying the behaviour of animals, rather than their physical abilities, is a newer development, animal attributes have long informed fields such as artificial intelligence, computing and robotics.

Alex Parfitt, a senior scientist at defence company BAE Systems, has worked on a number of biomimicry projects - including camera lenses based on the eyes of flies and lightweight materials that take their cue from the hollow bones of birds. He suggests hubris often leads us to believe that we can come up with new solutions to problems that are more efficient than nature - despite the fact that it has taken millions of years of evolution to get us where we are today. "There are potentially so many ideas that you can take from nature," he says. "We don't have to copy the biological system totally - just take the bits that are of interest to us."

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