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Swarms act as intelligent organizations: social insects

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Ants swarming (original image cropped) / Troy Trolley / LicenseCC-by-nd - Attribution No Derivatives

Colonies of social insects function efficiently because swarms self-organize.


For social insects teamwork is predominantly self organized. Coordinated primarily through the interactions of individual colony members, the insects can solve complex problems even though each interaction may be very simple.  


To understand the power of self organization consider how ants are able to find the shortest distance to a food source simply by laying and following chemical trails. For instance, say two ants leave their nest in search of food and venture off on separate paths. While walking, they release pheromones (chemicals) which leave a trail that the other ants in the colony are able to detect.  The ant that takes the shorter route will double back to the nest more quickly, thus, they will add more pheromones on top of those already left on the first passage (away from the nest). This reinforcement of pheromones leaves a higher concentration for other ants to sense and as a result other members of the colony will detect and follow this more distinct trail of pheromones.


In the same way, termites, even with no supervision, are collectively able to build mounds with ambient internal temperatures and comfortable levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Although science has yet to fully explain the exact mechanisms through which these architecturally efficient mounds are created, several models show evidence that termites are more likely to deposit soil particles where other individuals have just placed particles, due to the presence of short-lived pheromones.  


Indeed, self organization is beneficial because the swarm of social insects are able to carry out complex tasks completed by the collective duties of individuals within the colony without being centrally controlled. The collective efforts of the whole group is the only means by which the group is able to sustain themselves and grow as a community. 

This summary was contributed by Stephen Nelson.

"Each insect in a colony seems to have its own agenda, and yet the group as a whole appears to be highly organized. Apparently the seamless integration of all individual activities does not require any supervision. In fact, scientist who study the behavior of social insects have found that cooperation at the colony level is largely self-organized: in numerous situations the coordination arises from interactions among individuals. Although these interactions might be simple (one ant merely following the trail left by another), together they can solve difficult problems (finding the shortest route among countless possible paths to a food source). This collective behavior that emerges from a group of social insects has been dubbed 'swarm intelligence.'" (Bonebeau and Theraulaz 2000:73-74)
"…the ants can select the shortest path to the food source because they lay and follow pheromone (chemical) trails…the colony may occasionally get 'stuck' on a longer path if by chance the longer path is the first one marked. In using the 'trail laying-trail following' metaphor for optimization purposes, computer scientists found it essential to improve the convergence properties of their algorithms by artificially increasing the rate of pheromone evaporation beyond biological plausibility." (Bonebeau et al. 2000:39)
"In essence, we believe that social insects have been so successful--they are almost everywhere in the ecosphere--because of three characteristics:
  • flexibility (the colony can adapt to a changing environment);
  • robustness (even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks); and
  • self-organization (activities are neither centrally controlled nor locally supervised).
Business executives relate readily to the first two attributes, but they often balk at the third, which is perhaps the most intriguing. Through self-organization, the behavior of the group emerges from the collective interactions of all the individuals. In fact, a major recurring theme in swarm intelligence (and of complexity science in general) is that even if individuals follow simple rules, the resulting group behavior can be surprisingly complex--and remarkably effective. And, to a large extent, fiexibility and robustness result from self-organization." (Bonabeau and Meyer 2001:108)
Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application Ideas: Optimized energy use systems. Efficient transportation systems. Efficient computer systems such as file sharing, optimization and control algorithms. Efficient call routing systems.

Industrial Sector(s) interested in this strategy: Business, computing, marketing, transportation, communications

Iosystem Corporation
Eric Bonabeau
Bonabeau, E; Dorigo, M; Theraulaz, G. 2000. Inspiration for optimization from social insect behavior. Nature. 406: 39-42.
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Bonabeau, E; Meyer, C. 2002. Swarm intelligence: a new way to think about business. Harvard Business Review. 79(5): 107-114.
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Bonabeau, E; Theraulaz, G. 2000. Swarm smarts. Scientific American. 282(3): 72-79.
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over 5 years ago
Yes, there's interest in looking at swarms for lots of purposes. See this entry on range voting: http://www.asknature.org/strategy/209b5fa3de3573d76df73854f1cd9dba
over 5 years ago
Can this concept be used to create a management system? Might a set of simple internalized rules can replace a rigid conventional management structure?
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