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The Smart Swarm What ants bees fish and smart swarms can teach us about communication organization and decision making The modern world may be obsessed with speed and productivity but twenty first century humans actually have much to learn from the ancient instincts of swarms A fascinating new take on the concept of collective intelligence and its colorful manifestations in some of our most complex problems The Smart Swarm introduces a compelling new understanding of the real experts on solving our own complex problems relating to such topics as business politics and technology Based on extensive globe trotting research this lively tour from National Geographic reporter Peter Miller introduces thriving throngs of ant colonies which have inspired computer programs for streamlining factory processes telephone networks and truck routes; termites used in recent studies for climate control solutions; schools of fish on which the US military modeled a team of robots; and many other examples of the wisdom to be gleaned about the behavior of crowds among critters and corporations alike In the tradition of James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds and the innovative works of Malcolm Gladwell The Smart Swarm is an entertaining yet enlightening look at small scale phenomena with big implications for us all

10 thoughts on “The Smart Swarm

  1. Charlene Charlene says:

    Without uestion this is my favorite introductory book to systems sciencenetworks emergence This is what I was hoping to read when I picked up a copy of Global Brain by Howard Bloom I remember putting that book down and feeling such disappointment because the concept of swarm behavior in humans that mimics the swarm behavior of markets or insects was so fantastic but Bloom was too enad by every positive aspect of group think and failed to think critically enough to make the book even remotely reliable I have read some books on networks such as Linked by Albert László Barabási which I liked a great deal But this book is simply better The only book I can say I enjoyed was Geoffrey West's Scaling in Biology However that book is a compilation of academic articles and is less accessible to the general public This book is simply addicting and would be appealing to the scientist and non scientist alike Peter Miller just hit a home run This book is EXCELLENT Every time I finished a chapter I started the chapter again I had to I loved it that much Miller introduced his reader to various group behaviors in termites ants bees humans and markets While providing incredibly intersting stories about each species I was absolutely riveted Miller focused on the local rules of each species that led to the overall structure of the behavior I will provide examples for each species below If you do not want spoilers do not read any further since I am about to explain some of the best studies included in this bookTermitesTermites build huge mounds that act like lungs These lungs allow termites to live in the type of comfort know to humans who have central air in their homesEach mound 5 x size of Great Pyramids in people terms is made of fungus The fungus does 2 jobs Breaks down food to ingestible form for the 2 million termites who live in the mound Regulates the temp and humidity of the mound by breathing out CO2 through it's channels and breathing in oxygenThe rate of breath is so oxygen greedy a typical mound acts like the lung of a goat or small cowEngineers are looking into building houses that act like breathable lungs like termite mounds These houses of the future would use the difference in wind freuency to regulate the temperature in the home just as well as it is regulated now but without using electricity to do so What are the local rules for termites? Look and see what your neighbor is doing If your neighbor drops a pile of dirt you should too Each individual termite might seem as if they are not organized They might even seem extremely inefficient However when all the disorganized behaviors of the termites are looked at via time lapsed video it's clear that their collective actions build incredibly efficient and organized structures FishHow do fish know how to escape a predator? Their group reaction is so swift and coordinated How is that possible without verbal communication or overall top down knowledge of how to escape a predator? Fish use local rules They do what their neighbor is doing They follow at least 3 key rules 1 There is a zone of repulsion in which the fish will not crowd in too close to each other 2 There is a zone of attraction in which they keep themselves from being too isolated 3 There is a zone of orientation which allows them to know which direction to go Researchers have built models based on these 3 rules and have played around with them to understand how fish go from a disorganized state to a well organized state that helps them evade predators Shifting from a disorganized state to an organized state is a phase transition much like that of water turning to ice Interestingly fish on their own made bad choices They swam right up to the predator at times Group choices were significantly better This is the case for most species but Miller made the reader aware that when the group makes bad choices they are spectacularly bad as witnessed in the next example AntsThis is the best learned helplessness study I have come across A group of ants got separated from their larger group They laid down a circular trail of pheromones and continued to walk in circles As they continued going around they laid down pheromones The pheromones became stronger and stronger so strong in fact they were helpless to do anything but walk in circles until they died Every once in a while a single ant would try to reverse direction and stop going around in circles But it got bumped and jostled so much by the other ants that it had no choice but to travel in the group's direction Then it too walked and walked in a circle until it died PeopleWhen humans make a decision about behaviors smoking picking a song to go viral getting tattoo what to wear etc they rely on groupthink than individuality no matter how individualistic they think they are For example researchers have studied smoking behavior and found that uitting smoking looks very much like how birds flock and fish school Behaviors like smoking affect 2 to 3 degrees of separation Your friend's actions can affect you your friends and your friends' friends When it comes to predicting whether a pop song that will be a hit or not things get a little complicated Researcher can predict that the group than the uality of the song will be the determining factor in whether a song goes viral But they cannot predict which song will go viral Here is why Multiple groups have the same song list The first people to listen to songs in each group give initial ratings to the songs The different groups like different songs But in each group the songs that were initially rated highly were the songs that went on to become viral hits Each group gave rise to different hits Thus researchers amusingly concluded that in one universe Madonna is a megastar In another universe she is a nothing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Locusts African locusts are shy by nature They spend their days feeding on plants but avoid interacting with other locusts If a particular season is very rainy it can change the locust from shy introvert to strongly attracted and aggressive extrovert When excess rains come locusts lay eggs The increased population begins eating the increased plant life However once conditions become dry once there are locusts trying to eat fewer plants The locust then seek each other out kill each other swam together and engage in absolute destruction of the land Along with behavioral changes locusts who become social and aggressive also experience bodily changes Juveniles change from tan and green to black and yellow and immature adults change from bright pink to the yellow hue reserved for mature adults Why does this happen? Researchers tested to see if it was the site ​of other​ ​locusts that prompted the change It was not They then tested to see if it was the smell of other locusts Still no positive finding They finally figured out the stimulus when they began bumping into locusts with a paintbrush to mimic crowded conditions When they poked at various parts of the body no change in behavior or morphology was observed But when they specifically poked the hind legs the cascade of changed got underway It turned out that poking this part of the locust promoted the release of serotonin into key brain areas that governed personality physical maturity and morphology ​Miller related these stories and as he attempted to understand the nature of networks on a universal level I suspect I will pick this book up again in the not so distant future I took about 10 pages of notes for this book because I didn't want to lose any of the knowledge imparted to me by miller I loved this book

  2. Kater Cheek Kater Cheek says:

    This is one of those rare great books that manage to talk about many different fields of science and weave them together It uses the habits and organizations of social animals bees ants starlings etc and relates it to how people interact with one another It touches on everything from fluid dynamics how locust swarms and human stampedes happen to supply chains to computer intelligence The book is structured in chapters that discuss different types of animals and it's got plenty of anecdotes to keep the pace up Most of the books referenced were ones I've read before so it's not first hand reporting of original research but there were enough new stories and new information to interest meIf you're interested in science and especially if you're interested in animal behavior this is a good book to pick up My main complaint about it is that the authors pre suppose their readers to have a solid basis in higher math than I do I think some of the nuances on 3 d rendering software were lost on me

  3. Phillip Welshans Phillip Welshans says:

    An interesting but not on the whole revolutionary look at how human systems and organizations can learn from the animal kingdom I felt like I've read this book before in shorter articles and papers I skimmed the middle chapters and was unsurprised by the findings On the whole a perfectly acceptable path of introduction to complex system theory but only if complemented with other works to flesh it out a little

  4. Ietrio Ietrio says:

    Maybe the book can tell the reader something I could not reach that nugget because of the writing style The style is a very polished version of what a kindergarten child would say

  5. David Cheshire David Cheshire says:

    Having recently watched a huge flock of geese wonderously whirling circling and landing in a field near Milford on Sea my finding this book was very timely Hyberbole rules in the title however Understanding yes; it does a great job of explaining the science behind self organisation in ants bees termites and starlings The mechanisms are not easy to grasp but are clearly described local knowledge decentralised control distributed problem solving multiple interactions and emergeance Social bees send out many scouts to find nesting sites; each then perform a weird dance to try to sell their choice to the others who are all related being half sisters which no doubt helps the cooperation along This friendly competition of ideas makes for good choices If a termite sees a little pile of earth it'll drop another little bit on the heap Thus the termite mound whose networked tunnels generate winds which act as a lung for the whole hot underground community Starlings in a swirling flock steer by following the nearest 6 or 7 the number in constant of their immediate neighbours they use local information to great collective effect Now all this is amazing But to me somewhat less successful is to see how this can in practice make us better at communicating decision making and getting things done Practical applications in human life seem oddly few At Boeing's plane testing centre they work hard to iron out the little delays which used to create a ripple effect which in turn amplified these little delays into disastrously mega ones Best Buy's prediction market which taps into the wisdom of crowds helps the company to well predict And there's Wikipedia of course they always uote that And there's a bit about contagion and what causes standing ovations But frankly is that it? Why are these human applications apparently so relatively few and far between? Is it simply just that we're not ants or starlings so it doesn't apply to us? These creatures are dumb individually; it's their communities that are intelligent how did that evolve by the way? We humans are precisely the opposite; individually intelligent but collectively dumb We can each see what are the wise and sensible things that need to be done ask almost any child how the world could be saved and improved; but getting us to actually collectively do them is too often well nigh impossible Maybe the ants will inherit after all Or maybe fascinating though this new science is to discover the secrets of how to improve human society cooperatively and collectively we need to look elsewhere Having said that from now on I'll look at those smartly swarming geese and starlings with a new found respect For that I'm grateful to this book In this case analysing the rainbow definitely hasn't killed the awe and wonder

  6. Don Becher Don Becher says:

    Interesting book examining how collectively organized insects and animals use their group as a problem solving tool It appears that there is an inherent almost mathematically predictable advantage group living insects and animals have unrelated to indeed divorced from individual thought process This is in large part involved with shared information albeit not by any human like method rather by such activity as laying pheromone trails or dance etc Certain groups – most notably bees then reach determination as to what action to take such as where to place a new hivebased upon certain members’ evaluation of the evidence and a debate like presentation the bees joining in a dance and the vigorousness of that groups’ dance The author then explores the way in which certain human groupings do the same perhaps the best example being the Vermont town hall meetings The author then goes on to show the superiority of group decision making at least in processes involving such ordering as Rodgers Rules of Order among others He distinguishes however situations of group shared information and opinions from mob like events; such as tramplings that occur sometimes in large crowd movement when such process is not occurring Although not addressed the book’s implication would seem to indicate that social media could play a serious role in national decision making – if factsopinions are shared between the collective rather than just within groups with preset notions and opinions As a postscript I had this vague feeling that perhaps if a collective process is demonstrably superior and we are all becoming and electronically connected the Borg may yet surface as the superior race of humanoids

  7. David David says:

    This is a fun entertaining book about how animals and people act in crowds Peter Miller shows clearly how ants bees termites locusts birds and fish usually act much smarter in a crowd than any individual They do this instinctively without the need to be taught how to behave In some situations people also are smarter in a group than any individual But not always; there are times when a group of people will be dumber than the dumbest individual Several anecdotal examples are given in the book This is definitely a feel good book though occasionally it veers off topic To me the most interesting topic was the use of models of ant behavior in the development of mathematical algorithms For example the well known traveling salesman algorithm is intractable for a large number of cities But models of ant behavior depositing pheromones along a trail helps to yield an approximate solution

  8. JP JP says:

    A similar book of the tipping pointAuthor analysed the behaviour of ants bees termites A neat presentation and clearly correlating the actual eventswas wonderful Started little boring and took off nicely Learn about ant independent responsibility Bees selection of nest termites maintaining the nest and bird flock together handling predators and humans standing ovation GreatLoved

  9. Nicolle Nicolle says:

    Whay can we learn from ants and bees? Acting like a swarm or hive is the future of work and decision making Through examples of the animal world the author reflects on how humans can work as a hive and achieve collaborative problem solving based on a diversity of individuals and sources and through a multitude of complex interactions Top down decisions don't work get together and activate your company's hivemind to tap into that real time creativity Accessable and interesting read

  10. Steven Steven says:

    Concise and well thought out I felt the book's only shortcoming was that it didn't delve very deeply into some of the specifics of how the various swarming behaviors could be applied in practice What I mean simply is that the details about the animal behaviors described didn't match the level of detail for many of the human solutions and I wanted them to

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