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How do I love ants? Let me count the ways

August 22, 2019

Biology and engineering solve ant identification headache

As any grad student can tell you, science can involve horrible jobs: combing through poo, flensing carcasses, any number of “pipette monkey” tasks.

But there is a job so terrible and numbing, so doomed to end in cursing and tears and cramped hands and trembling fingers, that all else pales before it.

Identifying thousands of ants.

Andrew Burchill is earning a doctorate in collective animal behavior with Arizona State University's Social Insect Research Group. His career in myrmecology — the study of ants — lies ahead of him, but he may have already made his mark in what he calls “the niche science of mass animal christening” by co-creating a fool-proof system to label thousands of anything: schools of fish, flocks of birds, mounds of termites.

It may result in shrines to St. Burchill of Tempe in every myrmecology lab across the land. “It’s somewhat of a niche audience,” he admits.

This is a story of how engineering combined with biology to solve a problem.

Let Burchill describe what it’s like to paint tags on anesthetized ants on a tiny foam platform under a microscope, using a single human eyelash taped to a toothpick:

“I squint and my vision narrows until everything I can see is in a small circle surrounded by darkness. I’ve lost feeling in my left leg and a tremor shakes my already-cramping hand. For the last few hours the nervous energy in my body has screamed for release, but I desperately try to wrestle my attention back to the matter at hand.”

It gets worse. Ants are some of the cleanest creatures on earth. They spend hours every day grooming themselves. Burchill would return to the lab to find tiny paint chips in the ants’ trash heap.

Back up a bit. Why paint hundreds or thousands of ants? In a colony, different ants have different jobs, work hours and expertise. However, there aren’t bosses or managers. As Burchill says, “the world’s most industrious businesses are run like hippie drum circles.” If you’re studying social insects, you want to know how it all works. Are some ants lazier than others? How often do workers switch roles? To answer questions like those, you need to be able to tell individual workers apart. That applies to any biologist studying collective animal behavior, such as wolf packs or flocks of geese.

A fan of engineering, Burchill suspected that field could help solve his problem. He turned for help to his adviser, engineer Ted Pavlic of the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. Pavlic studies behavior and complex systems, among other subjects.

“He realized this is a classic engineering situation,” Burchill said. “There’s whole fields of engineering that have been doing this since before I was alive. He whipped up a simple formula to help with the ant situation. Once I found out about that, I thought it was amazing.”

With Pavlic’s experience in telecommunications, he realized the problem is routine in signal processing engineering.

Error correcting codes have been around for decades. They allow receivers to comprehend messages even if part is lost in transmission. Repetition is a basic form of error correction coding. Even if you miss some of the message the first time you hear it, you can fill in what you hear the second time around.

Enter check digitsThe check digit could be defined as the number that will make all nine digits (i.e., the 8 date digits and the 1 new, added digit) sum to a multiple of ten. Since 0+6+1+1+2+0+2+3 = 15, the check digit must be 5 to bring the new total to 20. When the rebels receive this new code, they can reconstruct the entire message even if any single digit has been lost. By adding up the digits in 06/1_/2023-5 (0+6+1+2+0+2+3+5 = 19), a simple check will reveal that missing digit must be 1; otherwise the message would not sum to 20.. Adding a single digit at the end of the message can verify a message or correct it. Vehicle identification numbers, bank account numbers, ISBN numbers in books, bar codes, QR numbers and the codes NASA uses to communicate with the International Space Station and the Martian rovers all use check digits.

But painting numbers on ants is not going to happen. Burchill and Pavlic gave them color-coded “names.”

“Red-blue-blue” ant had a red drop on her head and blue dots on her thorax and abdomen. They also added a check drop to the end of the abdomen, to prevent misidentification if any paint is lost or cleaned off. Each paint color is assigned a number. The final dot’s color/number is chosen to bring the sum of the numbers up to a known value. If any paint is missing, they could add up the numbers of the remaining colors and calculate what the missing dot was.

“You can do that to anything,” Burchill said. “If one tag gets lost, you can fix it.”

Burchill’s paper on the method is being published this month in the journal Animal Behavior. He said while it’s not a scientific discovery per se, it’s a solution to a problem that has plagued biologists forever.

“I think that engineering has so much to offer biology, and vice versa,” he said. “If it gets known in myrmecology at all, I would be highly excited. But I would like to give more credit to Ted than me. I see my role as making it more accessible. … Ted’s like God, and I’m more like Moses, so I don’t want to take too much credit.”

He also found another route around his problem.

“I switched to (studying) bigger ants,” he said. “Ones that are easier to paint.”

Top video: Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502

Smart security for kids

Two ASU researchers talk about security approaches they take with their own kids


August 22, 2019

Just as it’s increasingly common to find a smart home assistant on a countertop or an internet-connected camera at the front door, smart toys are also becoming ubiquitous in the playroom. But along with all the entertaining and interactive features come the same security and privacy concerns as other smart devices. 

“Kids can’t make these decisions for themselves,” said Jamie Winterton, director of strategy at Arizona State University's Global Security Initiative. “They don’t have a good sense of what personal information is and what it’s going to mean for them in the world that’s coming.”   Illustration by Changwha Kyung Download Full Image

With more and more interactive, connected toys coming to market, parents need to be especially vigilant about what kind of information these devices ask from children. For instance, many smart toys collect personal information in service of a customized experience.    

“How delightful does your child find it when a device knows the name of their teddy bear and their dog and their best friend? But it’s all very personal information that is not necessarily being protected by toy manufacturers,” Winterton said.  

In 2015, a security researcher discovered that millions of user profiles were easily accessible on the website of interactive toy company VTech. These accessed profiles, which contained photos, email address, names of parents and children and chat logs, weren’t encrypted. As a result, VTech was fined by the FTC. 

Winterton’s guideline for her kids? Lie. In a piece she wrote for New America, she outlines why obscuring your age, name and other information online is a good internet safety for kids. 

Formulating a “secret identity” for every device and internet account has become second nature for Winterton’s children. Before a new toy or device has even come out of the box, there’s a new name, birthday and personal details created for it.  

“We started out by talking about why personal information is important,” Winterton said. “What could someone do with it? Does it feel right to share? Would you walk up to a stranger on the street and tell them your name and birthday? We talk a lot about physical safety with kids, and I think there are a lot of analogies with internet safety we can make to help them understand why it’s important.”

two people at table

Global Security Initiative Director Nadya Bliss and Jamie Winterton, director of strategy for GSI, take different approaches when it comes to their children and the internet of things. While their strategies differ, the goal is the same: keeping their kids safe in a connected world. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU



READ MORE: 7 tips everyone can use to protect their privacy and security.

Global Security Initiative Director Nadya Bliss is wary of the implications carried with smart, personalized toys. Toys that come equipped with microphones and speakers to talk to children are of particular concern. 

“This essentially tells me, something in your child’s bedroom is recording your child and sending information back to a server, doing some analysis and responding,” said Bliss, a computer scientist and a professor of practice in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. “That creates all kinds of weird questions. For example: Who is listening to your child? Who can tap into that info and learn about your child? Also, if your child says they’re being hurt, is there a legal responsibility to report abuse?” 

Bliss isn’t the only one troubled by the implications of smart toys. In 2017, the FBI released a consumer notice outlining privacy concerns surrounding toys with “sensors, microphones, cameras, data storage components, and other multimedia capabilities.”  

Bliss is also focused on ensuring her daughter feels empowered down the line. 

“I want her to have some control over her own digital footprint,” she said. “Right now, you can see the entire lives of some kids on the internet. By the time they get to the point where they can make their own decisions, they might not want that.” 

Pete Zrioka

Managing editor, Knowledge Enterprise

480-727-5631