A topic I am fascinated with is emergence, where simple rules can generate complex behaviour (and the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts). Swarm Intelligence deals with applying these ideas of self-organisation from the world of insects to business problems. O’Reilly has an interview with Eric Bonabeau: Some quotes:
Human beings suffer from a “centralized mindset”; they would like to assign the coordination of activities to a central command. But the way social insects form highways and other amazing structures such as bridges, chains, nests (by the way, African fungus-growing termites have invented air conditioning) and can perform complex tasks (nest building, defense, cleaning, brood care, foraging, etc) is very different: they self-organize through direct and indirect interactions.
In social insects, errors and randomness are not “bugs”; rather, they contribute very strongly to their success by enabling them to discover and explore in addition to exploiting. Self-organization feeds itself upon errors to provide the colony with flexibility (the colony can adapt to a changing environment) and robustness (even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks).
The big issue is this: if I am letting a decentralized, self-organizing system take over, say, my computer network, how should I program the individual virtual ants so that the network behaves appropriately at the system-wide level?
I’m not telling the network what to do, I’m telling little tiny agents to apply little tiny modifications throughout the network. Through a process of amplification and decay, these small contributions will either disappear or add up depending on the local state of the network, leading to an emergent solution to the problem of routing messages through the network.
So that’s the main concept here. Solutions to problems are emergent rather than predefined and preprogrammed. The problem is that you don’t always know ahead of time what emergent solution will come out because emergent behavior is unpredictable. If applied well, self-organization endows your swarm with the ability to adapt to situations that you didn’t think of.