Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ants and Emergence

About a week ago, I was listening to a This American Life podcast on the theory of Emergence--which I will paraphrase to mean a scientific theory that says crowd full of individually "unintelligent" beings can collectively achieve task greater than their ability to comprehend.

One theory given was about ants--mindless insects that have no awareness of self or individual intellect. Yet, as a group, they make things happen, without knowing or understanding that they are doing so.

Think of it this way--as someone described it on the podcast. A big swarm of ants is on a table, each randomly moving about trailing their pheromone scent trail. One ant happens to stumble onto a pile of sugar. That ant isn't thinking "FOOD! Must tell others!" but his scent trail is there. Another ant randomly--without willful choice to do so--follows the same trail to the sugar. Now the sugar trail doubles in intensity. Another ant makes the scent triple in intensity, and so forth. Soon--although none of the ants wish it to be so, the crowd of ants are all going to the sugar and are carting the food home for the larvae.

Since I was at work while listening to this podcast, I naturally saw the parallels between ant Emergent theory and the mindless, often random, certainly inscrutable way that decisions get made at my office. Often things are done by lots of people, but individually they might not be able to explain how or why the original decision was made. "It's just always been like that . . . right?"

Anyway, to celebrate my insight, I put a few pictures of ants on my cubicle walls. Naturally, everyone asks me what the pictures are for . . . but I can't really go into it or I might offend the wrong people, right? wrong? Well, you know what I mean.

I found a video on Slate that helps illustrate the whole idea a bit more.

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