In the accepted answer to this question on ant size, it was suggested to give ants branchiostegal lungs, which taxonomically makes the ant a crustacean, rather than an insect. His suggestion was for my world to have a kind of insect/crustacean hybrid that looks like an ant, increase he worlds oxygen levels by 20% and reduce the gravity by one half. All of these details(with a few others like internal structural support) allowed me to create a dominant ant species around 11 inches long. They are similar in behavior to Argentine Ants and other than the details listed above, the world is exactly like earth. Though I would prefer the ants to evolve in a jungle-like climate.

Assuming that these ants exist on their world as the dominant species, how intelligent can I make them? What would I have to change in order to make them sapient?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ As smart as ants could be. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 3:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How about a hive mind? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz that sounds like it could be an interesting answer. $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 3:48
  • $\begingroup$ They are a dominant species on an alien planet. You can make them as clever as you want. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ This question would be significantly less broad if you defined the kind of environment these ants are operating in. Such a definition would significantly narrow down in what ways these ants can or should be smarter. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 12:30

3 Answers 3


In GEB, a book I highly recommend by the way, Doug talks frequently about anthills. In models of intelligence he likens the brain made of cells to a being existing as an anthill, with individual ants being dumb units.

Not remembering the clever names of the two characters so implemented, I tried a Google search that seems quite bizzare (GEB anthill doctor) but such is the nature of anything related to GEB.

That shows me a passage from The Science of Diskworld which is hostile to being copied as text, but you can visit the link. Please read the top of that page.

The fact that GEB's topics are informed by Diskworld is par for the course. In this case, Pratchett liked the idea and used it in HEX. At this point I must reflect on how such a thing is appropriate to a question with the tag. Again, when GEB is concerned, the rabbit hole leads through the Twilight Zone, or worse.

In one example, Aunt Hillary, who is an intelligent anthill, meets with her psychiatrist who is Dr. Anteater. She offers him some of her ants to eat. This doesn't bother her in the slightest, as she is not the ants themselves but the network of connectivity and the state represented by the ant's motions.

So, leave your bugs small. Just as a familiar anthill is more like a single body whose organs happen to not be stuck together, your alien intelligence can develop on the level of a colony. Just as a single brain cell is not a mind, a single bug is not.

It is the level of a colony that has a single DNA and evolves as an animal. Individual workers are no different than our individual cells which are replaced from within as they wear out. The colony has intent and direction and will decide when to move or camp, flee or fight, discover new food resources and hold social relations with other colonies. The individual bugs communicate via hormones etc. just as the cells and organs within a body coordinate, but are one system.

So sentience will arise on the level of the supercolony, itself made of many "organs" which are themselves composed of disjoint bodies and built structures.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting concept $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 6:09

This is one of the cases where we don't need to push the limits. For one thing, the definition of intelligence is a really difficult moving target. For mid-range intelligences, we're pretty comfortable. However, when we start asking questions like "which is more intelligent: Stephen Hawking or Deep Mind, the computer that recently beat humanity at Go?" the definitions get tricky. If you're not careful, you'll custom tailor your ants into a corner trying to make them too intelligent, and they wont feel realistic.

So let's work with some knobs that let us play around with intelligence, without forcing ourselves into defining it too strongly. One great tool to consider is the Sentience Quotient, or SQ. SQ is the logarithm of the ratio of the information processing rate of a creature divided by the mass of its brain. If we measure processing in bits/s and mass in kg, we get a number between -70 and +50. -70 is the slowest you can get, processing 1 bit in the lifespan of the universe, using all the mass in the universe. +50 is a quantum limit based on how fast information can move. In practical settings, we find:

  • Plants cluster around -2
    • Carnivorous plants score around +1
  • The aged Cray-1 is about a +9, while Watson, the new supercomputer, is around a +11 or +12
  • Humans score around a +13
    • Most animals which use neurons cluster around this (which makes sense: they're using the same basic hardware)

Its well accepted that SQ is not really a very good measure of Sentience nor Intelligence, but it has one great advantage: it is an easily measured quantity. It points out that, because your ants are using neurons, their general ability to process data will be about the same as any other animal. Brain size would be key. If your ant is the size of a Chihuahua, it is highly unlikely it will be any smarter than a Chihuahua.

However, that's not the end of the story. What makes ants interesting is not their body, but their society. They are social creatures which can solve remarkable problems. Next time you find a column of ants bringing back food, break it, put something in the way, and watch how they operate. In a remarkably short period of time, they will find a workaround and the column will operate as fast as ever. Now go remove that blockage. Frighteningly fast, they will realize the blockage is gone and resume the previously ideal path.

No one ant is smart enough to solve this kind of problem. However, ant colonies are so unbelievably good at these sorts of path optimizations that modern computer scientists literally have optimization algorithms written to emulate ants. You'll set a start, a goal, and you will have your simulated ants deposit pheromones as they path-find around your state space, just like real ants do. We, with all our intelligence, tell our computers to go act like ants because they do better at these problems than any algorithm we've thought up!

A hive mind solution for your ants is much more believable, and much more interesting. Suddenly you have much more brain mass to work with. The limit is no longer how much brain mass you have, but rather how well you can make all of those brains work together. If the ants develop a communal consciousness, it may be far more advanced than ours.

There is actually an measurable definition of consciousness out there which is applicable to these circumstances. The Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness is one model we have developed in an attempt to understand what consciousness is. In that model, consciousness is defined by the information stored in the system as a whole which is not immediately evident in any individual piece. This model has been used to explore the idea of groups of individuals having a collective consciousness. You could use such a model to explore the consciousness of your ant colonies.

I cannot actually answer the question "What would I have To change in order to make them sapient?" because we simply don't know enough about sapience to make such an answer. However, you may be able to use these numeric tools to explore your ants and see how smart they might be.

  • $\begingroup$ Saying that an ant the size of a chihuahua would be about as intelligent assumes that the neurons of the ant's brain are working roughly the same way as a dog. We know that primate muscles can be much more dense than an exactly equal strand of human muscle tissue. Why couldn't you have a much more "dense" collection of neurons in the ant brain? We see in nature that there are plenty of small creatures that are smarter than big ones. What if you want to go with a different fundamental makeup, like silica vs carbon based life? Lots of possibilities beyond the obvious "make them a mass mind". $\endgroup$
    – JBiggs
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 17:44

What makes humans so intelligent is the size of our brain and the amount of energy it consumes in its day-to-day tasks (such as cognition). Ever wondered why it takes such a long time for humans to grow, when compared to a cow, for instance? the amount of energy the human consumes rationalizing and creating things (specially during REM sleep) is much, much bigger than that of a cow.

To be clear, I'm just guessing here, but the answer is: Not a lot. The size of the ants would have to change and their lifespan would also have to increase, to allow the brain to fully mature.

  • $\begingroup$ size is not so important , bigger brain doesn't equal bigger intelligence ... if it was so then neanderthals would have been incredible geniuses compared to modern humans $\endgroup$
    – user21718
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Threose they were, they just didn't have as much knowledge to build on. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 0:45

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