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Jamais Cascio, 19 Dec 03

Ants are fascinating creatures (except when they're invading one's kitchen, in which case they are simply pests to be dealt with harshly). Individually pretty non-intelligent, the nests nonetheless display behavioral sophistication, usually associated with pheromone patterns. Complex behavior resulting from individually simple actions... could there be a lesson for software programmers?

But of course.

MUTE is a new open source file sharing application, running on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. It combines heavy encryption with ant-derived packet handling to allow file-swapping which cannot be tracked via conventional means. It's still rough around the edges (to be generous), but is an interesting reaction to the RIAA crackdown on music sharing.

(This is not an endorsement of music file sharing, although Tim O'Reilly's argument that Piracy is Progressive Taxation is pretty compelling...)

While the anonymized and encrypted file sharing aspects are interesting, what really caught my attention was the use of ant food search patterns as a model for packet handling. Ant searches are perfect examples of complexity theory: simple rules can lead to complex behavior (though watch out for circular mills and emergent failures). MUTE relies on this to build file sharing networks in which no given member can know both who else is on the network and what they have to share. The more participants -- even if you never share or download a file -- the better it works.

This initial version of MUTE is intended as a music file-swapping system, but the underlying logic works in any setting where obscuring both content and path of messages is important. Might be worth downloading while you still can.

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