Waiter, there's a fly in my cell phone

Researchers at British Telecommunications look to the way a fruit fly grows its exoskeleton for a hint on improving cell phone networks.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--British Telecommunications is learning that not all bugs are bad when it comes to computing and network technology.

The telecommunications company has found that the way a fruit fly grows its exoskeleton has useful lessons for a company trying to figure out how to get the most use out of a network of cell phone antennas.

The general approach is to let parts of the network negotiate their configurations among themselves rather than to dictate the settings from a central location, said Mark Shackleton, project manager for pervasive computing at British Telecommunications' BTexact research labs. The system can be more flexible than the current arrangement, under which the settings are sent out once a month.

"Nature has evolved strategies to cope with dynamic, unpredictable environments," Shackleton said, speaking at an IBM conference on "autonomous" computing systems--those that can monitor, control, heal and protect themselves.

Telecommunications companies have a difficult time trying to configure their arrays of antennas, called base stations, that communicate with the profusion of mobile phones within each base station's domain. The problem: If two adjacent antennas use the same frequency, they can cause interference that will lead to dropped phone calls, Shackleton said.

But with dozens of base stations, each broadcasting with six of the 29 available frequencies, the computational problem of deciding which base stations use which frequencies is a tough one. The puzzle is compounded because base stations aren't distributed evenly, there are geographic complications such as hills, and network use changes constantly.

Fruit flies: The new buzz?
This is where the fruit fly comes in.

When a fruit fly is developing, its back needs some cells to develop into its exoskeleton and some to develop into sensory bristles. Too many bristles, and the skeleton isn't strong enough; too much exoskeleton and the fly is ill-equipped to sense its environment.

But there's not a central system that dictates which cells will develop into exoskeleton and which into bristles. Each cell holds the potential for both, and when a cell starts developing one way, it sends a chemical message to its neighbors. A bristle developing in one cell will tend to suppress bristle development in its neighbors, so equilibrium is established, Shackleton said.

This decentralized model, in which each cell or base station settles with its partners, works in Shackleton's tests. "It will come up with a useful plan which minimizes interference" and can better adjust to changing usage patterns, he said. Which antennas use which frequencies would no longer be BT's problem. The antennas could simply work it out among themselves.

Shackleton said BT is also applying the work to military communications systems, which have even worse problems because the equivalent of base stations are mobile and the chaos of military actions makes it hard to keep track of a network's components.

Shackleton also described a threat-detection system in which computers on a network occasionally check their neighbors' status. When a computer has an unresponsive neighbor, its own status changes and it goes on alert, which in turn sends other computers into a cautious state. Such a system can help reconfigure security systems to wall off intrusions as they spread, Shackleton said.

Loosening the reins
Letting elements of a computing system autonomously govern themselves in this manner has advantages, but it's likely to ruffle feathers in traditional information technology quarters, where people are used to being in control, Shackleton said.

"We must be willing to give up a certain amount of control, at least of detailed control," in order to let these self-regulating systems succeed, Shackleton said.

And as a related matter, it won't always be clear exactly how independent entities arrange themselves to arrive at a workable configuration. This loss of comprehensibility to human administrators is "possibly the most contentious (issue) of all," Shackleton said.

Another consequence could be a loss of performance, in which self-governing systems work well enough, but not as well as systems run by human engineers, Shackleton said.

But Steve White, senior manager of IBM's autonomous computing division at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, said lower performance shouldn't be an option.

"I think we should be shooting for autonomous self-administering systems that can do better than humans do," White said in an interview.