Swarm theory practicality for social collaboration- Part 1

Swarm theory

I drew the above picture of two ants talking to each other. It is a simple doodle sketch of two ants.

I would like to comment and talk about the subject context behind this simple doodle sketch. Hope you all will appreciate it.

A single bee or an ant is not smart but colonies of them are. We can draw intriguing insights from their behavior.  We must be thinking, a single ant should be very intelligent and confident.  We have always seen it marching so confidently up the sugar bowl in the kitchen cabinet. It is probably executing a planned action.  After all, we have seen ants making long winding lines, build elaborate ant hills and forage food like crazy.

‘It is not the case, a single ant is very incapable of accomplishing anything’ says Stanford University biologist, Deborah Gordon. She had written a good book titled ‘Ant encounters, interaction networks and colony behavior’. If you have the time, read it. It is available on Amazon. You can find the link here.

Then a question comes to our mind, how are they successful as species on earth for so long years. The answer lies in their group behavior. Colonies of ants also known as swarms are far more intelligent than a single ant on its own.  Colonies of ants can accomplish tasks, which are practically impossible for single ants to even think of. For example, colonies of ants can identify the shortest possible route to the food source and they can even organize and allocate various tasks to other ants. They are able to do all this with something called ‘Swarm intelligence’.

Please read our blog post article:  Swarm social media systems, intriguing swarm insights

It is not just with ants. There is a host of other insects and animals, which display the swarm intelligence. A school of Herring fish, for example, can coordinate their behavior collectively and turn their direction in a split second to avoid a threat.  They do this action collectively. It turns out there is no single fish within the school that is aware of the big picture. Scientists term this behavior as the ‘Swarm theory’.

Swarm theory practicality

Many scientists are intrigued by this swarm theory for the past 20 years and research is underway for the past 10 years to gain insights from this intriguing behavior.  Applications of swarm theory are enormous and can be used for wide applications in Artificial intelligence and Robotics to bring business efficiency.

Further, an interesting insight from the colony of ants is that none of the ants have a boss or a manager. The ants forage food, follow other ants, through a pheromone trail, and have countless interactions. They are self-organizing and collaborate among themselves. They have learned to adapt to this swarm behavior for millions of years. Their strengths lie in being together as a swarm and therein lies their success.

Please read our blog post article: Do ants have brains

Similarly, birds do not have a leader. Have you ever seen how migratory birds fly (There is Swarm theory in action!). There are countless pictures of them. Birds change the leadership often, as and when the lead bird gets tired. No bird is telling the other birds what to do. Birds just follow their neighbor as they fly across the sky. For once it is not about individual decision making. It is just blind following and trust on the neighbor birds, to coordinate their movement.

Continue reading

The crowd effect: when crowds have a mind of their own even in social media

Crowd effect

Crowd effect happens all the time. Sometimes they are so mundane that we hardly take notice. Yes, we hardly take notice that there is a lot to learn from a humble fish. The fish under the spotlight is the Golden Shiner. For starters, making an effort to be selfless is one.

Crowd effect is a special state of fascination, where the ‘hypnotized individual falls into the hands of the hypnotizer’.

I borrowed the above line from the book titled “The crowd: the study of the popular mind” written by the French author Gustave le Bon, published in 1895.  Gustave le Bon was a French polymath and a gifted doctor.  He worked in diverse fields such as Sociology, Psychology, and Physics.

Computer technology never existed then nor was there any social media during his time.  But then, his study on the Psychology and Sociology of crowds led to the book. He is considered one of the pioneers in that area.  You can find the book here on Project Gutenberg.

His works on understanding crowds and their behavior ring so true in today’s social media usage. Understanding human nature is important. It has a considerable influence on individual and the crowds, social institutions, religion, education, work execution, office rumors, industry unions, trade associations,  fanaticism, celebrations, social mobilizations and much more.

The fact is Technology is secondary and it is an enabler.  Understanding human nature is primary within the context of social media and the crowd effect.

Perfectly sane individuals behave so differently in the midst of a crowd. They are swayed by the opinions and feelings of the crowd. Isn’t it.

We have seen it happening to ourselves. How many times have we stopped and looked at a construction site or a random event that happens on a busy road? We have stopped because we have seen other onlookers standing by on the roadside. They are puzzled, just as you are and they are eager to know what is the hustle all about. Being curious, huh?

 A busy construction site
A busy construction site

If you are looking at the above construction site picture and forming an opinion, then there are chances that hundreds of other people are also watching the same page, this very moment and forming opinions just as you.

Thoughts collide.

It is pretty much in the same way as how we behave and interact on the internet. It is one massive crowd (3.7 billion active users, at any given time, to be precise).  All of them swayed and influenced by each other’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

Crowd effect and the group mind theory

There are many theories surrounding this crowd behavior and the crowd effect. One such popular theory is the group mind theory.  The theory states that individuals are motivated by each other. Even though they (individuals) exist apart, they act as one group.

Individual thoughts and feelings are stimulated by each other’s thoughts and feelings.  The understanding is that when there is a common cause in a group, individual minds in that group co-operate towards that cause.

The group mind is not the sum of all the individual minds. In fact, the ‘crowd has a mind of its own’ distinct from the individual minds that constitute it.

Crowd effect: Answers from the animal world

There are numerous examples of such behavior in the animal world. Fish, bees, and ants are all good examples.

Iain couzin from Princeton University has spent a considerable part of his life studying animal behavior in swarms and flocks. His particular interest fell on a very tiny bland fish called the Golden Shiner.  The Golden Shiners swim in shoals and they prefer to swim in the shadier parts of the ocean which are darker than usual.

Both, the lab experiments as well as studying their (Golden Shiners) behavior in their natural environment and habitats, have shown remarkable patterns of intelligent crowd behavior and crowd effect.

Continue reading

Social listening: Go beyond data and look for meaning

Social listening for social media conversations

We listen to social conversations all the time. Listening to these conversations helps us to understand other people and also understand the world. Active listening also helps us to learn and build relationship with others. That way, listening is a very important skill. A new kind of listening has surfaced in the recent years ­­– listening to social media and it is called as “social listening” by some media experts.

Social listening happens when you listen to conversations that happen around your brand or company on social media. A simple act of listening to understand others has gained prominence in the commercial world. Now social listening (Commercially at least!) is all about gaining insight about your brand and company by paying attention to the conversations that happen on social media.

Companies have begun to realize the importance of gaining insight and market intelligence about their products and services.  An interesting article in the HBR: “How to get more out of social media-think like an anthropologist” talks about how data scientists and managers should read into these online social media conversations and not straight away reject or pass them.

There is an emphasis on meaning management. Managers glean data, not just on consumption patterns of top brands and general perception of the products but also the culture, the geographical and political landscape of the place and the people. When you want to find meaning in a conversation, you need to understand the context.

Data managers and data scientists need to move away from looking at data as merely points on a graph, when they glean from social media sources for information processing. Even though Big Data analytics is essential, understanding social media conversations requires, delving deep into the culture and social perceptions of the people involved to gain insight.

Social listening requires cultural sensitivity and understanding context

Interestingly, the authors in the article point out that, modern day Data scientists lack the skill and effort required to understand and glean the meaning out of such conversations. Truly to their job and function, as data managers, they have the reductionist attitude.  They reduce complex data into lower level data as Ones and Zeros.  It is good for other data processing (for example: – Efficiency and profitability calculation), but may not add any value to the process of meaning management for online social media conversations.

Social listening efforts for gaining insight and understanding customers requires marketing professionals and company personnel alike to straddle between information and meaning. As mentioned earlier, finding meaning requires sound understanding of the context.

It is time for cultural sensitive data analysts and info-culture builders within organizations to read the meaning out of such conversations.  Such culturally sensitive data analysts can take complex data and form higher order and meaningful information out of social media conversations.

Finding meaning in a conversation involves context. Context is naturally out of the question for information processing professionals and data scientists. Context involves, for example such information deriving questions such as: “Who said it?”, “Why they said it?” and “What are the challenges ?”. Answering such questions gives meaning and valuable context to social media conversations.

Insight and intelligence can be derived from the context.

It is touted that gaining insight through social media conversations should be a regular feature for company personnel. This should not be relegated to the marketing department alone. Infact, the ‘C’ positions of the organization should also get into this art of social listening as an everyday affair.  Understanding “Customer thought and intent” is after all the Holy Grail in business.

Social listening has the potential to drive innovation and corporate strategy. A recent example was the social media conversation, about a major food chain brand which went viral on Whatsapp, a popular social media tool. The conversation and spread on the social media was about the poor quality of uncooked chicken which was served to customers. Even live photographs of the food condition went viral.  The food outlet was shut down eventually after the event. This event alerted the company officials to rectify their grave mistakes.

There are many such examples around the world. Data scientists need to be sensitive to such information on social media. There are all kinds of signals sent about a brand. Some are true, some may not be and still some are amplified by culture as well. Thorough research may be required for the company to make a response but then the representative samples may not include the actual consumers. Any information coming out of social media is relevant as long it talks about the situation or the mistake at hand.

Finally, what makes it worthwhile is that, it pays every effort to interpret online social media conversations and embrace the context involved in the conversations to gain insight and to understand customers thought and intention.

Hope you found this article interesting. Please do share us !


Do ants have brains ? Yes, collective intelligence.

Do ants have brains - Collective intelligence

What is common among these three seemingly different but connected things – Ants, Birds and the Hollywood Movie, Lucy. Yes it is, Collective intelligence. Before we get into the subject of “Do ants have brains” we will understand briefly about collective intelligence.

Collective intelligence can be defined as

A shared or a group intelligence that is a result of collaborative, collective and coordinated efforts of individual members in a group.

We have known that general intelligence exists within individuals and can be correlated from various cognitive activities performed by individuals. The question is “Does Collective intelligence” also exist in the same levels for individuals in a social group or a social network?

Social networks have lives of their own depending on how we create them. They follow a cyclical pattern of creation, growth, rapid spread, global influence and long sustenance. Perhaps we can say that social networks can never die. We might be surprised to know that a social network thinks on its own and does its own independent actions.

The more we contribute the more it grows and each one of our contributions has a significant impact on the network as a whole and the network can collectively deliver where no one individual can do it alone.

Measuring collective intelligence – Learning from researchers.

There is overwhelming evidence and research that collective intelligence is so very important for a social group or a social network’s productivity and success.

MIT center for collective intelligence had published a report on “measuring collective intelligence” in a social group. It states that such intelligence is not about the individual intelligence in a group but it is about the sensitivity of the group as a whole, taking turns in the conversation for commenting, sharing opinions, ideas and answering to replies and the percentage of women in such groups.

The study shows a interesting finding that they have found a general collective intelligence factor called “c” . The factor is not related to the average or maximum intelligence of the individual team members but to the collective intelligence of the entire group.

The sensitivity of the group as a whole towards commenting, turn taking in responding, answering to group members as well as number of women in the group or social network.

There is lot of research that is going on with respect to the factors that affect collective intelligence in a social network. The number of women and the degree of collaboration that happens within that group has an impact on the collective intelligence of the group.

Do ants have brains ? What we learn from Ants, Birds, Fungi and the Hollywood movie – Lucy.

If you had seen the Hollywood movie “Lucy” you would be thrilled to the end. Good story line and movie direction of a slightly complex subject. Good direction by Director and Writer, Luc Besson.  The main protagonist Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson gets transformed to a single invisible cell and disappears at the end.  In the movie, Lucy gets injected with a special super chemical which gives her brain the ability to use 100 % of its capacity, gradually. With this capacity she has the ability to transform herself and in this case into a single cell.  The individual cells in turn can act collectively together even though they are separated by space and time. Mind boggling isn’t it. Yes possible!

The movie is a worldwide hit but then it has received varied response from critics who say it is a misrepresentation of science.  But that’s something which we have not known and not experienced so far. We feel it is a distant possibility.

Garden ant and collective intelligence
Garden ant and collective intelligence

Let’s take an example of a colony of ants. The properties and super characteristics of a colony of ants is far more greater than an individual ant on its own. The amount of super co-coordinated effort a colony of ants can put together for reaching a bottle of jam is tremendous and they end up achieving it anyway.

This coordination is possible only when the ants are collectively acting together and not the feat of an individual ant. Such feats are the result of coordination and collective intelligence of many individuals. It is no ordinary feat that they build  huge ant hill all working together in a coordinated effort.

We human beings are multi cellular organisms. All the cells in the human body have their own individual properties, but then they all work together. By working together, they form a higher form of life called the human being.  This form is far more different and evolved than a single cell with its individual properties.

The bottom line is that we are essentially a huge bundle of cells (A few trillion cells approx.). According to the Smithsonian magazine there are about 37.3 trillion cells in the human body.

Another manifestation of the same phenomenon is about our thoughts. Our thoughts are not the product of a single neuron in the brain but a collective making of billions of neurons working together to create a pattern.

Such cooperative action and collective intelligence in social networks and in our society makes our civilization progress in leaps, allowing us to evolve with that wisdom.

The social network factor
Birds and Collective intelligence

Birds for example form a social network. When a flock of birds can collectively coordinate and determine the direction by combining the desires of each and every  bird in the flock, that’s real intelligence and you can say  that’s wisdom.

Another living thing, the fungi also behaves intelligently and collaboratively work together to find the best patch of ground to grow. It can even find the best path as well to reach it.

We have a lot to learn from the animal world.

End note

Image credit : Pixabay

Further reading resources :-

  1. Why some teams are smarter – New York times
  2. MIT centre for collective intelligence – MIT
  3. Collective hive mind – Science focus
  4.  Ants and brains – Reference
  5. When ants make decisions – Inside science
  6. Ants can navigate despite tiny brains – BBC

Hope you found this article interesting. Please do share us !



Collective intelligence examples – Goldcorp Inc. and SETI@home project

Orchestra - as a collective intelligence examples

Collective intelligence examples are everywhere -We need to be discerning to know them.

There is a huge compendium of collective intelligence examples at this MIT site. It lists down all the social media and knowledge exchange technology platforms available on the market.

Here, in this article, I have written about two collective intelligence examples. Examples where participants self-organise and regulate themselves without needing an external medium like a technology platform to make things happen.

Mass collaboration has allowed us to create huge low-cost collaborative infrastructure projects.  These projects allow millions of people to collaborate and co-create products. Productive capability of people will now be better through such collaboration as the value creation is quick and easy flowing to reach the masses. Research profoundly says that the new collaborative way of working and capability, will be the future of business models in companies and how individuals perform work.

Research profoundly says that the new collaborative way of working and capability, will be the future of business models in companies and how individuals perform work.

This collective action of bright minds joining together as one social activity to create value and there by leading to a coordinated decision making is what “Collective intelligence” is all about.

Infact, collective intelligence is a sub-set of such mass collaboration. In other words, we need to have mass collaborations for collective intelligence to take place.

We are going to talk about two diverse Collaborative collective intelligence examples as initiatives that has happened in the past and look at how these initiatives sustained and were a great success. These stories were told over and over again by many. But then, what is important is to capture the essence of what is to come in the future.


Goldcorp Inc. – The Goldcorp Challenge as  collective intelligence examples

It would be interesting to talk about Rob McEven, the then CEO of Goldcorp Inc. who had a spark of an idea in the year 1999 and went on to launch one of the World’s most successful collaborative collective intelligence efforts which made history.

Goldcorp Inc. is a gold mining and gold producing company headquartered in Canada and was going through a rough patch facing bankruptcy and closure in 1998.  Goldcorp also owned the underperforming fifty-year-old mine at Red lake in Ontario, Canada.  With its mine dying, the company was also doomed to die eventually. There was unrest within the employees with strikes and debts looming.

In-house geologists within Goldcorp couldn’t find and locate gold deposits within the mining site and nor they came up with favorable solutions.  They looked forward for McEven for a turnaround and for his leadership.

With his company still in lot of uncertainty by the year 1999, McEven attended a conference sponsored by the MIT. He was listening through the lectures and then a striking story came about on how “Linus Torvalds” created the Linux, the world class operating system by assembling a group of software developers.

When Torvalds revealed his code to the world, it allowed some thousands of willing programmers to voluntarily contribute to the development of the operating system. The contributors would vet it, make amends and further released newer versions of the software.

McEven contemplated and thought about it. He had a moment of insight. If his employees were not able to find gold deposits at the Red Lake then may by someone else could. He set of with his spark of insight and discussed many follow through ideas with his team.

The Goldcorp challenge,

In the year 2000, the Goldcorp challenge was born. It is one among many collective intelligence examples. He (McEven) decided to throw open the exploration of gold deposits to the world. Sharing all the knowledge and expertise they had with them from the last 50 years from 1948.

Initially, there was lot reluctance from within his team members. As his ideas were unconventional. The concept of Collaborative ‘Collective intelligence” and Wisdom were not known to the mining industry and the world audience.

Largely, the mining industry was a secretive industry. Nobody ever revealed information about a site and its geology. It was considered precious and proprietary data. Nevertheless, they decided to go ahead with the Goldcorp challenge in March, 2000 with a prize money of $ 575,000 available for participants and contributors who had the best ideas, techniques and estimates for finding and locating gold deposits at the dying site at Red lake.

All the geological data that Goldcorp had from the last fifty years was shared with the public though software and sharing infrastructure. People from all walks of life – Geologists, ex-military, students, scientists and consultants participated and contributed. It was a tremendous collective response and intelligence working together. McEven had his team were surprised at, the amount of information and expert talent and intelligence that was available externally.

Even as the concept of Collective intelligence existed many years before, McEven chance stumbled into “Collective intelligence” through a spark of an insight for the mining industry. So great was the response, that within weeks of sharing the information, the contributors had identified 110 targets within the Red Lake mining site. Out of which 50 % of the targets were totally new and not identified before and about 80% of them yielded vasts amounts of Gold deposits.

Fractal Graphics

Fractal Graphics, an Australian Geoscience consulting firm and Taylor Wall and Associates together shared the first place winner’s prize of $ 105,000 in the contest. The scientific team at Fractal graphics based in Australia and had not visited Canada and the mining site before but they still managed to make collective efforts, pooled their resources and minds together and worked on from Australia to present winning locations for gold deposits.

Goldcorp today, is enjoying the seeds of ideas and effort that was sown 16 years back. It has now become the 4th largest producer of gold in the world. The company has successfully harnessed collective intelligence and turned itself around.


Cooperative computing at the SETI @ home project – A collective intelligence example

Collective intelligence at seti
Collective intelligence search for ET

SETI@home (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) is an experimental project for using distributed public resources across the world. Public resources in the likes of idle computing power in our PC’s and Laptops at our homes and offices.  This idle computing power can be used to analyze radio telescope signals. A distributed cooperative computing happening in time where the collective intelligence of all machines across the world, can be used to speed up the enormous processing and computing power and resources required for the analysis.

The radio telescopes erected around the world listen to the narrow bandwidth radio signals from outer space. These radio signals are not naturally occurring and so analyzing them would provide evidence for the existence of Alien intelligence lurking out there or maybe even a contact is possible.

Carl Sagan

For those of you, who have grown up seeing the television serial “COSMOS” in the year 1980 where Carl Sagan (The man behind the SETI project) narrates the mysteries of the universe, the project and such extraterrestrial experiments for finding life outside earth would be a thrilling experience. The Hollywood movie “Contact” is also based on such radio telescope signal analysis where in a riveting story unfolds based on it. So popular is the SETI project for people across the world that it has remained as a fantastic exploration and quest for life outside earth in the minds of people.

The SETI @HOME project was launched by the Space sciences laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley in May, 1999. The Challenge was that the computers at the SETI@home project had to analyze each and every radio signal frequency and decide whether it is an intelligent signal or a noise and it had to listen to a huge number of frequencies. It required massive computational resources to accomplish this.

Buying such massive computational resource is expensive. So they thought about a clever way of using idle computing power lying at our homes and offices. All we need to do is to download the software program which is now available as part of the BOINC  (Berkeley open infrastructure for network computing) infrastructure.

Machine intelligence is also collective intelligence

The software program comes in the form of a screen saver for your PC or laptop. When your PC is idle, the screen saver actually downloads a packet of data from SETI@home, processes the packet of data and sends it back to SETI@home. Each packet of data contains a work Unit of radio signals. It is as simple as this but then the infrastructure provisions and the challenges inherent in such large distributed computing was very evident.

Even though there is machine intelligence involved, this is real computational collective intelligence at work. Processing the radio signals in a cooperative fashion and helping towards the signal decision making for a greater cause is real collective intelligence that the world can see and wait for the results.

Since its inception, the project performed 10 21   floating point operations and this distributed computing as entered into “Guinness book of records” as the world’s largest distributed computing research project.

So far, the project has not detected any extraterrestrial signal but has identified candidate sky positions where likely concentration of intelligent radio signals might be lurking. Expectations are that somewhere between in the years of 2020 to 2025 that enough evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence would be found.

Hope you liked reading about the two collective intelligence examples above. If you like this article, please do share us.


Further resources on this subject

  1. MIT Centre for collective intelligence – Good resource for collective intelligence examples.
  2. He struck gold on the net (Really)
  3. Wikinomics – How mass collaboration changes everything
  4. How stuff works – SETI@home project
  5. About SETI@home

If you find this article interesting, please do share us