Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Swarm Behavior

From National Geographic: Swarm Bahvior
(pointer was from Michael Covel's blog)
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 communicate by touch and smell. When one ant bumps into another, it sniffs with its antennae to find out if the other belongs to the same nest and where it has been working. (Ants that work outside the nest smell different from those that stay inside.) Before they leave the nest each day, foragers normally wait for early morning patrollers to return. As patrollers enter the nest, they touch antennae briefly with foragers.

"When a forager has contact with a patroller, it's a stimulus for the forager to go out," Gordon says. "But the forager needs several contacts no more than ten seconds apart before it will go out."
"A forager won't come back until it finds something," Gordon says. "The less food there is, the longer it takes the forager to find it and get back. The more food there is, the faster it comes back. So nobody's deciding whether it's a good day to forage. The collective is, but no particular ant is."

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. Some ant species may go about this with more sophistication than others. (Temnothorax albipennis, for example, can rate the quality of a potential nest site using multiple criteria.) 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.
The decisive moment didn't take place in the main cluster of bees, but out at the boxes, where scouts were building up. As soon as the number of scouts visible near the entrance to a box reached about 15—a threshold confirmed by other experiments—the bees at that box sensed that a quorum had been reached, and they returned to the swarm with the news.

"It was a race," Seeley says. "Which site was going to build up 15 bees first?"

Scouts from the chosen box then spread through the swarm, signaling that it was time to move. Once all the bees had warmed up, they lifted off for their new home, which, to no one's surprise, turned out to be the best of the five boxes.

The bees' rules for decision-making—seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices—so impressed Seeley that he now uses them at Cornell as chairman of his department.
IN NATURE, OF COURSE, animals travel in even larger numbers. That's because, as members of a big group, whether it's a flock, school, or herd, individuals increase their chances of detecting predators, finding food, locating a mate, or following a migration route. For these animals, coordinating their movements with one another can be a matter of life or death.

"It's much harder for a predator to avoid being spotted by a thousand fish than it is to avoid being spotted by one," says Daniel Grünbaum, a biologist at the University of Washington. "News that a predator is approaching spreads quickly through a school because fish sense from their neighbors that something's going on."
"As soon as the wolf got within a certain distance of the caribou, the herd's alertness just skyrocketed," Karsten says. "Now there was no movement. Every animal just stopped, completely vigilant and watching." A hundred yards (90 meters) closer, and the wolf crossed another threshold. "The nearest caribou turned and ran, and that response moved like a wave through the entire herd until they were all running. Reaction times shifted into another realm. Animals closest to the wolf at the back end of the herd looked like a blanket unraveling and tattering, which, from the wolf's perspective, must have been extremely confusing." The wolf chased one caribou after another, losing ground with each change of target. In the end, the herd escaped over the ridge, and the wolf was left panting and gulping snow.

For each caribou, the stakes couldn't have been higher, yet the herd's evasive maneuvers displayed not panic but precision. (Imagine the chaos if a hungry wolf were released into a crowd of people.) Every caribou knew when it was time to run and in which direction to go, even if it didn't know exactly why. No leader was responsible for coordinating the rest of the herd. Instead each animal was following simple rules evolved over thousands of years of wolf attacks.

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.
Such thoughts underline an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.
If you're looking for a role model in a world of complexity, you could do worse than to imitate a bee.

The aligators photo by Jarrad Maiers doesn't have much todo with the article, still I like it.

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