06 July 2007

Swarming and Flocking--Learning from Natural Behaviours

Swarming behaviour is typical of animal populations--from insects to fish to birds to mammals. But is it possible for humans in the developed world to learn something from the swarming behaviours of animals?
"Ants aren't smart," Gordon says. "Ant colonies are." A colony can solve problems unthinkable for individual ants, such as finding the shortest path to the best food source, allocating workers to different tasks, or defending a territory from neighbors. As individuals, ants might be tiny dummies, but as colonies they respond quickly and effectively to their environment. They do it with something called swarm intelligence.

Where this intelligence comes from raises a fundamental question in nature: How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical decision about their hive if many of them disagree? What enables a school of herring to coordinate its movements so precisely it can change direction in a flash, like a single, silvery organism? The collective abilities of such animals—none of which grasps the big picture, but each of which contributes to the group's success—seem miraculous even to the biologists who know them best. Yet during the past few decades, researchers have come up with intriguing insights.

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.

People are indeed learning from the swarming behaviours of ants, bees, birds, caribou, and other animals. The article above has the details.

Another fascinating look at how humans can learn from swarming and flocking behaviour is the book "Out of Control" by Kevin Kelly. You can read Kelly's excellent book online at the above link. If you have been feeding your mind mostly on either junk food or dry scholarly work, consider taking regular recreational breaks to read portions of Kelly's entertaining and provocative work.

Information scientists and engineers are looking at swarms as models for artifical intelligences and robotics controllers. This is a form of biomimetics, from the bottom up. Rodney Brooks and Hod Lipson typify this bottom up research for robotics and AI.

One of the key points to draw from the effectiveness of swarm behaviour in the animal world for predator and prey, is that it depends upon the individual competence of the members of the swarm. If too many of the individual members are incompetent, the swarm cannot function.

This is the danger of dysfunctional institutions of education, for human society--which has its own swarm-like behaviour. Dysfunctional schools and universities ruled by dysfunctional ideologies, create dysfunctional and vulnerable societies. That is the problem with an excessively narcissistic, psychologically neotenous, and academically lobotomised society. It is incompetent on such a large scale that it can no longer defend itself from either internal or external threats.

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