Have you ever heard of the travelling salesman problem? It’s a popular mathematical conundrum that stumps even some of the most advanced supercomputers. Turns out, the humble bumblebee is smart enough to solve it with ease. They’re the first animals who have been able to solve the travelling salesman problem—and not for just a handful of locations. They have solved it for hundreds of locations with a brain the size of a grass seed.
The travelling salesman problem is surprisingly simple: given a list of locations and the distance between each one, you need to find the shortest possible route where you visit each location only once. The more locations on the list, the more complex the route and the calculation will be.
According to Mathieu Lihoreau, lead author of the study conducted by the Queen Mary University of London in 2012, bees visited "20 of the 120 possible routes, the bees were able to select the most efficient path to visit the flowers. They did not need to compute all the possibilities." One bee traveled 2,000 meters on their first trip, and by her final trip she cut that distance to only 458 meters. “They gradually refined their routes through trial and error," said Lihoreau.
So what do bees have to do with the world’s data storage problem? Since Big Data is used to help companies make informed decisions about their businesses and help governments and organizations solve the world’s problems, efficiently digging deep into the data is important for them. But parsing through so much information and coming up with answers is like looking for a needle in a haystack. A very large and expensive haystack.
On top of the world’s issue with being able to process and analyze valuable data, our current data storage systems are not set up to store the amount of information it will need. Most data today is stored in massive football field-sized warehouses full of servers—that system will soon become unsustainable due to high construction costs and the massive amount of land needed for those warehouses, not to mention obscene energy requirements that can end up harming the earth’s atmosphere.
“If you look at large institutions like CERN, which runs the Large Hadron Collider, it generates petabytes of data each second the machine is running,” said Nick Gold, spokesperson for data company Catalog in a Digital Trends article, “But there’s no way to store petabytes per second, so they have to throw away more than 90% of the data they generate. They’d love to keep all of that if there was a way to keep it.”
While scientists are hard at work looking for the next data storage option that can hold large amounts of data in a smaller space than those server warehouses, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the future of data storage.
Bees’ Data Processing Abilities
Looking at the information processing aspect of the world’s data concerns, the bumblebee’s ability to solve the travelling salesman problem may become helpful. As we create more data, Big Data companies will need to find new ways to analyze that information efficiently. Since bees already do that with their limited brain capacity, scientists are hopeful the answer lies inside the bee’s data mapping abilities. They’re still unsure exactly how the animal—with it’s small brain—can outsmart a supercomputer, but ongoing research may soon be able to answer that question and have it translate for Big Data companies.
As always, necessity is the father of invention. The practice of obtaining industrial oil from the earth came right in time to replace the practice of killing dwindling whale populations for oil. The invention of robust wire rope came right in time to replace chains and traditional rope when the world industrialized and much more intensive mining and maneuvering was needed. In our time hopefully we can anticipate that the next advancement of data storage will help us avoid the potential risks of data centers becoming overwhelmed.
Nature May Hold Our Data Storage Solution
The solution unfortunately isn’t as simple as creating more servers, storing and analyzing all of that Big Data. It involves rethinking how we approach data storage and data processing. Right now, the world relies heavily on cloud services like a hybrid cloud or distributed data storage for storage. That means employing big tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon to build large server warehouses to store data. While it’s a cost-efficient solution for businesses, there needs to be a solution that makes data storage more land-conscious and environmentally friendly.
Scientists have always looked to nature for inspiration. Instead of looking to future hard drives or quantum computing as the solution to our growing data storage problem, maybe we need to look at nature more closely.
Plant DNA As Data Storage
Not only do we need to fix our data storage processing abilities, we need different modes of data storage. Scientists are researching how to use plant DNA as a possible future data storage solution. By distilling information down into binary code—the way computers store and read data—scientists can translate that into DNA code. It’s a complex and expensive process right now, but could become viable on a large scale in the future. Since a single gram of DNA can hold up to 215 petabytes of data, it could easily store the world’s growing mountain of data.
The Bottom Line
Nature has (and always will) hold secrets just waiting to be discovered. Eventually, our current data storage and processing capabilities will become obsolete. Hopefully, nature holds the solution to our growing data problem, and that we unlock those secrets before we become overrun with data.
About the author:
Natasha is a writer, reader, and dog-lover with a passion for science and tech subjects. Her work has carried her from the bustle of New York at Inc. Magazine to the Santa Fe deserts at Outside Magazine. Natasha currently works as a copywriter, guest blogger, and freelance journalist. When she's not at her keyboard, Natasha loves spending her time outdoors hiking, rock climbing, and scuba diving.