IST Austria scientists developed a balance beam for the new Hagenbachklamm playground to teach science in a playful way. The children can follow the "smart track" of the ants on the balance beam. An instruction plate tells them what an "ant algorithm" is and why it is related to computer science. The first children – and adults – tested the balance beam at the official opening of the playground in Unterkirchbach on May 25, 2013. They found it great fun!

Klosterneuburg at dusk

Ants very quickly find the shortest route so that they visit all stations on the way between their nest and food only once. This ideal route can be computed and is commonly referred to as “ant algorithm”. By counting your steps you can check if a different route is shorter than the ants’ track.

A similar question in computer science is the so called traveling salesman problem (TSP). The traveling salesman has to visit a defined number of cities. In order to save time and travel costs he needs to consider which route between the cities is the shortest. The more cities he has to visit, the more difficult it will be to find the solution.

The Austrian mathematician Karl Menger was the first to define the problem in 1930 as follows: “We define the messenger problem as the task of finding the shortest way among a finite number of points whose pairwise distances are known in advance”. Even today the “traveling salesman problem” still plays an important role in logistics (i.e. optimizing routes for delivery trucks) or in the design of computer chips whose processing speed depends on the distances between the semiconductors.

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