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Swarm Behavior
JULY 2007
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Swarm Behavior
By Peter Miller

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"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.

"We don't even know yet what else we can do with this," says Eric Bonabeau, a complexity theorist and the chief scientist at Icosystem Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "We're not used to solving decentralized problems in a decentralized way. We can't control an emergent phenomenon like traffic by putting stop signs and lights everywhere. But the idea of shaping traffic as a self-organizing system, that's very exciting."

Social and political groups have already adopted crude swarm tactics. During mass protests eight years ago in Seattle, anti-globalization activists used mobile communications devices to spread news quickly about police movements, turning an otherwise unruly crowd into a "smart mob" that was able to disperse and re-form like a school of fish.

The biggest changes may be on the Internet. Consider the way Google uses group smarts to find what you're looking for. When you type in a search query, Google surveys billions of Web pages on its index servers to identify the most relevant ones. It then ranks them by the number of pages that link to them, counting links as votes (the most popular sites get weighted votes, since they're more likely to be reliable). The pages that receive the most votes are listed first in the search results. In this way, Google says, it "uses the collective intelligence of the Web to determine a page's importance."

Wikipedia, a free collaborative encyclopedia, has also proved to be a big success, with millions of articles in more than 200 languages about everything under the sun, each of which can be contributed by anyone or edited by anyone. "It's now possible for huge numbers of people to think together in ways we never imagined a few decades ago," says Thomas Malone of MIT's new Center for Collective Intelligence. "No single person knows everything that's needed to deal with problems we face as a society, such as health care or climate change, but collectively we know far more than we've been able to tap so far."

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. For those of us who sometimes wonder if it's really worth recycling that extra bottle to lighten our impact on the planet, the bottom line is that our actions matter, even if we don't see how.

Think about a honeybee as she walks around inside the hive. If a cold wind hits the hive, she'll shiver to generate heat and, in the process, help to warm the nearby brood. She has no idea that hundreds of workers in other parts of the hive are doing the same thing at the same time to the benefit of the next generation.

"A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do," says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. "None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign."

If you're looking for a role model in a world of complexity, you could do worse than to imitate a bee.


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