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Fruit flies teach computers a lesson

Insect's nerve cells are model of network efficiency

5:17pm, January 13, 2011

Fruit flies have solved a computing problem that has vexed computer scientists for decades. Mimicking how some nerve cells in flies pick a leader to make decisions has led scientists to a computer algorithm that could make wireless sensor networks, such as those used for monitoring volcanic activity or controlling swarms of robots, much more efficient.

In such smart networks, some sensors can act as leaders to alert headquarters if, for example, a certain number of them detect rumblings indicating that a volcano might be waking up. The new approach, published in the Jan. 13 Science, achieves the same leader-follower relationships but eliminates a lot of cross-talk among sensors, saving energy and computing power.

A colleague’s presentation on how nerve cells in fruit flies take on different jobs struck computational biologist Ziv Bar-Joseph as being very similar to a distributed computing problem. In distributed computing, many computer processors w

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