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TECH TALK: Envisioning A New India: What Ants Can Teach Us

January 16th, 2002 · No Comments

The next time you see ants or termites, resist the urge to kill them. Instead, observe them and think a little. A recent book “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software” by Steven Johnson has this to say about ants:

Ants and termites make up 30 percent of the Amazonian rain forest mass. With nearly ten thousand known species, ants rival modern humans in their global reach.

While there’s no single key to the success of the social insects, the collective intelligence of the colony system certainly played an essential role. Call it swarm logic: ten thousand ants – each limited to a meager vocabulary of pheromones and minimal cognitive skills – collectively engage in nuanced and improvisational problem-solving.

A harvester ant colony in the field will not only ascertain the shortest route to a food source, it will also prioritize food sources, based on their distance and ease of access. In response to changing external conditions, worker ants switch from nest-building to foraging to raising ant pupae. Their knack for engineering and social coordination can be downright spooky – particularly because none of the individual ants is actually “in charge” of the overall operation.

Local turns out to be the key term in understanding the power of swarm logic. We see emergent behavior in systems like ant colonies when the individual agents in the system pay attention to their immediate neighbors rather than wait for orders from above. They think locally and act locally, but their collective action produces global behavior.

This theme is elaborated on by Eric Bonabeau and Christopher Meyer in “Swarm Intelligence: A Whole New Way to Think About Business” (Harvard Business Review, May 2001):

Consider termites. Individually, they have meager intelligence. And they work with no supervision. Yet collectively they build mounds that are

engineering marvels, able to maintain ambient temperature and comfortable levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide even as the nest grows. Indeed, for social insects teamwork is largely self-organized, coordinated primarily through the interactions of individual colony members. Together, they can solve difficult problems (like choosing the shortest path route to a food source from myriad possible pathways) even though each interaction might be very simple (one ant merely following the trail left by another).

Social insects have been so successful 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 or locally supervised).

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, flexibility and robustness result from self-organization.

Can we learn from nature? Can we work together like the harvester ants and termites? Individually, we may each have limited intelligence and abilities, but collectively, we can do wonders.

For India to change, we cannot just reply on charismatic leaders. A Mahatma Gandhi only comes once in a century. We cannot wait any longer. We will all need to play our part, self-organising, making local decisions that can have a bigger global impact. We need bottom-up, “emergent” behaviour.

Tags: Tech Talk

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