Hat tip to Barbara B and Jason O for this: nice piece on swarm intelligence in the NYT yesterday. Stupid (i.e. unintelligent or unthinking) agents can be collectively very smart (not just in guessing outcomes as James and John have shown); collective smartness doesn't need smart individuals.
According to Dr Iain D Couzin, whose work is the backbone of the article, the similarities between animal and human behaviour are striking:
“You look at liquid metal and at water, and you can see they’re both liquids,” he said. “They have fundamental characteristics in common. That’s what I was finding with the animal groups...”
The underlying mechansims seem to be the same, in ant and human alike.
Why is this important?
Well, if you're trying to understand mass behaviour, how it arises and how to shape it, maybe you don't need to dig deep into individuals' motivations and psyches...maybe understanding the rules of how the individual agents interact is enough...
Maybe the kind of mathematical biology that Couzin and co use could help us get there quicker and more preciesly. We've just got to get over our notions that humans are something somehow other or better than other social animals; maybe we play by just the same rules, we just fool ourselves that we don't.
More of this anon, have an exciting project in this area which is coming to the boil...