Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Swarm Intelligence - The Simpleton Ant and the Intelligent Ants

Another posting from my scan of responses to the edge.org annual question "What is your favorite deep elegant or beautiful explanation?" In his essay, Robert Sapolsky does a curious stroll through several candidate beautiful stories he considered (the double helix, the work of Hubel and Wiesel on how the visual brain extracts features, how the GI tract moves stuff along…) and comes to rest on this selection:
...emergence and complexity, as represented by "swarm intelligence."

Observe a single ant, and it doesn't make much sense, walking in one direction, suddenly careening in another for no obvious reason, doubling back on itself. Thoroughly unpredictable.

The same happens with two ants, a handful of ants. But a colony of ants makes fantastic sense. Specialized jobs, efficient means of exploiting new food sources, complex underground nests with temperature regulated within a few degrees. And critically, there's no blueprint or central source of command—each individual ants has algorithms for their behaviors. But this is not wisdom of the crowd, where a bunch of reasonably informed individuals outperform a single expert. The ants aren't reasonably informed about the big picture. Instead, the behavior algorithms of each ant consist of a few simple rules for interacting with the local environment and local ants. And out of this emerges a highly efficient colony.

Ant colonies excel at generating trails that connect locations in the shortest possible way, accomplished with simple rules about when to lay down a pheromone trail and what to do when encountering someone else's trail—approximations of optimal solutions to the Traveling Salesman problem. This has useful applications. In "ant-based routing," simulations using virtual ants with similar rules can generate optimal ways of connecting the nodes in a network, something of great interest to telecommunications companies. It applies to the developing brain, which must wire up vast numbers of neurons with vaster numbers of connections without constructing millions of miles of connecting axons. And migrating fetal neurons generate an efficient solution with a different version of ant-based routine.

A wonderful example is how local rules about attraction and repulsion (i.e., positive and negative charges) allow simple molecules in an organic soup to occasionally form more complex ones. Life may have originated this way without the requirement of bolts of lightening to catalyze the formation of complex molecules

. And why is self-organization so beautiful to my atheistic self? Because if complex, adaptive systems don't require a blue print, they don't require a blue print maker. If they don't require lightening bolts, they don't require Someone hurtling lightening bolts. 

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