National Geographic has an article up about Swarm Theory. How do insects and animals cooperate to engage in highly complex behavior? They are distributed individuals with no leadership and they are acting on very limited local information.

The key to understanding swarm intelligence is that it is no “Intelligent Design” so to speak. No one commands the behavior, it’s self-organizing. Swarms aggegregate all local information and acts smarter than any individual could.

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one’s in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

Ants are very stupid creatures as individuals. As a group they display complex and intelligent behavior as a colony. They communicate through touch and smell and react based on what other ants are doing. So ants can collectively forage for food when they smell pheromones from other forager ants or repair nests without orders or individual decisions.

That’s how swarm intelligence works: simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information. No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do. But the bottom line, says Iain Couzin, a biologist at Oxford and Princeton Universities, is that no leadership is required. “Even complex behavior may be coordinated by relatively simple interactions,” he says.

Swarm intelligence is more useful for humans than you think. We’re probably swarms ourselves actually. Truck companies are starting to use ant-foraging rules to improve resource management. They save fuel and time. Betting and futures markets aggregate information in the same way. The Market exhibits ant-like behavior. Traffic self-organizes and resists government attempts to control it.

This is another possible way of building artificial intelligence.

The military ran a test with a hundred small robots that searched for 6 pink balls in a building. They communicated with each other (ie: no balls here, search elsewhere) and used swarm behavior to find all 6 balls quickly.

That’s the wonderful appeal of swarm intelligence. Whether we’re talking about ants, bees, pigeons, or caribou, the ingredients of smart group behavior—decentralized control, response to local cues, simple rules of thumb—add up to a shrewd strategy to cope with complexity.

Quite. It also shows that many cases of Command And Control tactics are inappropriate. There are situations where it is useful, but self-organization describes a broader range of activities.

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