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.

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Swarm social media systems: Intriguing insights from Nature

flamingos- Swarm social media

Swarm social media systems require understanding of Mother Nature. We human beings are super organisms living in a swarm, constantly evolving and co-creating. An individual neuron (the brain cell) in our brain, decides to trigger  based on its connection and interaction with its neighboring neuron. When one brain cell talks the other listens. The swarm social media systems should replicate this environment.

Swarm theory

If you happen to walk into a garden during any of the rainy wet days, do not miss the chance to see nature at work, in its intriguing best.  Try to uncover a dense vegetative growth from the muddy earth or the surface of a dead rotting wood. There are good chances, you will find a small orange or pink colored blob sticking on to it. It is nothing but the “Slime mold”.

Slime mold - Yellowish orange blob
Slime mold – Yellowish orange blob

Till recently, the Slime mold was categorized under the Fungi family. Now it is an independent species, an organism. There are about 900 species of Slime mold all over the world. The word ‘slime’ derives from the gelatinous structure of the organism.

The peculiar behavior of the Slime moth is what brings our attention to.  The Slime moth exists as a single-celled organism most of the time and not as a yellowish-orange blob. But then during specific conditions, the cells miraculously disperse and the yellowish-orange blob completely disappears. It so happens that during abundance of food, they exist as single cell organisms, not visible to the naked eye but during food scarcity, they all aggregate.

Intriguingly, the slime mold is a single cell organism and yet they all miraculously find their way back and unite again as a yellowish –orange blob.

Each and every Slime mold cell,  acts like a simple mini-brain.They do simple tasks. No one single cell is in charge.

Yet with great intelligence, they all congregate and aggregate as a mass under natural circumstances. They come together as a swarm and act like one organism.

This behavior of the Slime moth has been studied by researchers all over the world from the last 60 years and are still not able to understand the logic in its entirety. This is  Swarm theory and the fundamentals for understanding the Swarm intelligence.  It is important to understand the Swarm theory in designing the Swarm Social media systems. Infact, such Swarm intelligence has been found in other species, as diverse as Bees, Ants, Birds and Fish to name a few.

Can humans display and act in such swarm intelligence?  The intriguing answer is – Yes, we already are. We do not know about it.

What is swarm intelligence?

You must have seen sometime or the other, a band of ants marching across your kitchen floor. Yes, they have found a food source and are foraging it.  A band of marching ants are smart, an individual ant is not.  A colony of ants are far smarter. An individual ant is relatively dumb and depends on its colony to make decisions.

The individual ant does not know what task to do next. But as a colony, the ants are smart they are able to effectively and efficiently respond to their environment. They are able to allocate tasks and defend their territory together.

As a colony, the ants are able to do, what becomes unthinkable for an individual ant. How are they able to this? They are able to do this through Swarm intelligence.  Swarm intelligence is also referred to as the “Wisdom of the crowds” or even “Collective intelligence” in different contexts. But according to this post and author, they are all the same. There are countless ways and manner in which Mother Nature displays wisdom. Ant colonies are just one.

School of Fish in a swarm
School of Fish in a swarm

Other such questions as, how are bees able to make decisions together for collecting honey for their hive?  How is a school of fish, able to make a coordinated decision together to swim in a particular direction?

The Wikipedia defines Swarm intelligence as a collective behavior of a decentralized and self-organizing system. Much of Swarm intelligence is applied right now in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Designing a swarm social media system from ground level is not easy.  In designing such a system, the local knowledge and micro level behavior of the individuals should determine the macro intelligence, the structure and adaptability of the system.

Read our blog post on Degrees of connection in social media systems: This talks about the various levels of connection, we human beings have within a social media system.

Principles of Swarm social media systems: Learning from Ant colonies

There are five principles of Swarm social media systems that we can learn from the Swarm intelligence of the Ant colonies.

1.Need for critical mass:

Having a critical mass of people to make intelligent assessments of the overall state. Having a ten member group, scanning an environment is not enough perhaps a few thousand would do. Like ants, more number of people need to contribute. The more the better.

As an example: wandering ants leave a small amount of pheromone secretion at the food source. They do their part. They do this act, unknowing of the fact that this act actually leaves a trail for other foraging ants to follow through. A kind of self-less behavior. Their self-less behavior creates a mass distribution line for other ants to join.

This behavior would not have been understood, if we were to study only the individual ants. The entire system need to be understood. If more number of ants are involved in this behavior and if they do different activities then it is better for the entire system.

2.Ignorance is bliss:

A very popular saying ‘Ignorance is bliss’ works well here. Not everyone in the group, need to have all the expertise and knowledge in the world. It is enough, if we do simple things. We need simple elements and simple behavior. Big macro level behavior should rise from simple acts. Dense interconnecting Swarm social media systems need to be built with simple elements that allow smart and intelligent behavior to arise out of it.

This takes direct cue from the relative stupidity of an individual ant. Individual ants just do their job. This works well with the swarm logic. We do not want a single ant in the colony to know everything or the overall state of the system. This becomes a real liability for the swarm logic and the swarm social media system.

The same analogy can be applied to the human brain as well. We do not want each one of the billions of neurons in the human brain to be sentient.  The neurons need to be collectively acting together to produce a macro level thought pattern.  I will be talking more about this in my blog post on social brain.

3.Random interactions are better:

The interaction among the members need to be in random fashion without any pre-planned effort in a swarm social media system. A simple rule of thumb interactions are better. Just like ants need freedom to look freely for their food, as individuals we need to interact freely. Our interactions with others, allows the system to have macro level behavior in a desired direction. It is only through such interactions, the overall change in the system can be assessed and stated.

4.Self-organizing patterns and signs:

Once we have the free interactions with others, we need to identify and assess the bigger self-organizing patterns. Swarms need to understand the overarching behavior, so that everyone follows suit. In ants, the gradient of pheromone trails leads other ants to a macro behavior, which is normally towards the direction of the food source. But sometimes, depending on the amount of pheromones, it could be for foraging or nest building.

This self-organizing capacity is inherent in ant colonies. Usually, the same logic applies when members in a group follow, what the vast majority of people are already doing. In a typical swarm behavior, we need to look for patterns.

5.Pay attention to your neighbors:

In a swarm social media system, it is important that members see what their neighbors are doing and learn from them. It is only through such interactions we learn from each other. And when we learn from each other, we begin to solve problems by ourselves. An intelligent collective behavior emerges. Ants do the same. They learn from neighboring ants.

It is important that we design a swarm social media system which is free for everyone to interact. Without interaction it would just be a meaningless grouping. It is only through relationships and interactions that things start moving. This is swarm logic.

Leaving behind: What I like to say

Ant hill colony
Ant hill colony

We are just not individual organisms but super organisms living collectively in a swarm. The key to designing a Swarm social media system lies understanding human nature.  But then, a more visible organization that Mother Nature displays is through the ant colonies. There is no management. There is no boss or a manager ant and yet the individual ants display and act in remarkable sincerity and commitment to do their part.

Each individual ant does its duty and does its part. This is important.

The ants talk to each other through myriad ways.  There are countless interactions between them. These interactions result in super intelligence to accomplish insurmountable tasks. They are self-organizing and that is Swarm social media system for you

Further resources on this subject

  1. Swarm theory, National Geographic
  2. Emergence, Steven Johnson.
  3. World computing.
  4. Wiki on Slime mold.
  5. Wiki on Swarm intelligence

Other useful sources

James F.Kennedy, Swarm Intelligence (The Morgan Kaufmann Series in Evolutionary Computation)

Andries P. Engelbrecht, Fundamentals of Computational Swarm Intelligence

Marco Dorigo, Ant Colony Optimization (Bradford Books)

Image source : Pixabay

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