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The Smart Swarm

Peter Miller

Ants are not smart. In fact, they are inept. They don't go about things in the most sensible way, they don't remember anything for very long, and an individual doesn't seem to care if he succeeds. "The longer you watch an ant the more you end up wanting to help it." Individual ants aren't smart, but the colony is. The first ants out of the nest are the patrollers, who check to see if conditions ok. The foragers use them to decide whether to go out looking for food. But the patrollers don't "tell" the foragers anything. The foragers simply work off the data, using a simple rule - if the right number of patrollers return to the nest at the right rate, then foragers will go out. If not, they stay put.

A study of honeybees labelled all 4000 bees in a swarm with tiny numbered disks stuck to their thoraxes. To do that, they had to chill batches of bees, 20 at a time, to render them passive enough to be handled. Study found that bees evaluate by "competition of ideas". Scouts returning from the prime site convinced other scouts to check it out by dancing vigorously. As more scouts investigated that site, support snowballed, and fewer scouts checked out the lesser sites. Eventually a consensus reached.

1. Seek a diversity of knowledge
2. Encourage a friendly competition of ideas
3. Use an effective mechanism to narrow your choice

Wisdom of the crowd. Quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? audience is right 91% of the time. That a random crowd of people with nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon than sit in a TV studio could do that seems counter-intuitive, but there is an explanation.

Tied up with diversity - when a group is struggling with a difficult problem, it helps if each member brings a different mix of tools to the job. When people with diverse skills put their heads together, they often out-perform groups of the smartest individuals. Diversity trumps IQ.

Imagine there's a Q on WWTBAM abt the Monkees - "Which of these people were not a member of the group - Peter Tork, Davy Jones, Roger Smith, Mike Nesmith?" Imagine there are 100 people in the audience. Seven of them are Monkees fans, and they know the answer is C. Another ten people recognize two of the names on the list as being Monkees, so their choice is between Noll and one other. That means half will vote for C, and the other 5 will be spread amongst rest. Another fifteen audience members will recognize one of the names, so by the same logic, C will get another 5 votes. The rest, 68 people have no idea, so distribute their votes completely at random, 17 each. Add them up and C gets 34 votes. Statistically the other names will get about 22 votes each, so C will be a clear winner, even though 93% of the audience were basically guessing.

The value of diversity, of course, depends on the task at hand. If you're facing open heart surgery, you want a trained heart surgeon. And, to make the most of diversity, you must ensure that they don't interact too much, or they start to influence each other, usually because of intimidation.

Several studies of intelligence community - CIA, FBI, police teams - looking at how decisions made in groups. What often happened was the 'experts' asserted their expertise, didn't see any need to seek ideas from less experienced or less qualified, and so failed to take advantage of collective talents and so ended up making poorer decisions.

And, it turns out that no agency - whether Defense Dept, CIA, FBI, police, Coast Guard or drug enforcement - has all the data they need to figure out what is going on. But each is suspicious and prejudiced against the other groups. And as well as that, the individuals are prey to the human biases that distort all decision making - anchoring (contaminated by first number you hear), the status quo trap (prefer to keep things the way they were), and the sunk cost trap (make decisions that justify earlier decisions, even though you would decide differently today).

Above all, most managers rely on intuition - yet the world has become so complex that intuition is unreliable.

Wikipedia - many more people prepared to improve an existing article than to jumpstart a completely new one. A Wiki is never finished - it's a process, not a product. US Intelligence community took that model to radically improve info sharing - 9/11 had shown that several different agencies had scraps of relevant knowledge before the event, but nobody in a position to put it all together. So Intellipedia project - instead of 'certified wisdom', it was "here's what I have now. Do you have anything to add?"

'Wisdom of the Crowd'. Herd animals copy their neighbours. If one starts running away, they all do, rather than stop and make individual asssesment. Usually effective, but sometimes dysfunctional - as in the crush of a crowd of people trying to escape through a narrow gateway.


(New Scientist review)

If you have ever bought something because it had the most positive reviews, or joined in with a standing ovation simply because you didn't want to be the only one left sitting, then you are at least as smart as a honeybee and as steadfast as a bird in a flock. Reassuring news, as it turns out.

Peter Miller, an editor at National Geographic, argues that there is a lot we can learn from group behaviour in other animals. In The Smart Swarm he has extracted a few vital rules from research on the decision-making skills of birds, insects and fish, that can improve the way we approach even the most complex of our problems. How is it that honeybees can employ debate and democracy to decide where to relocate, when across the world boardroom meetings adjourn, week after week, without agreement? How do schools of fish change direction in the blink of an eye without a single signal or fearless leader to guide them? Do animals know something that we have either forgotten along the way or have yet to learn?

Miller's book advocates a new kind of problem-solving: one that offers a kind of collective resilience and flexibility that we simply cannot achieve as individuals. Collective solutions have already been adapted to solve some tricky human problems. The way termites maintain a constant temperature inside their mounds has inspired climate control features in skyscrapers, and the navigation techniques of ants have been used to optimise the routes of delivery trucks. Miller also describes how one CEO got more accurate sales forecasts using the average of the best guesses of a large number of entry-level employees than from his small team of finance experts. And that's just the beginning.

The Smart Swarm blends zoology, entertaining anecdotes and conceptual discussion in an approachable and insightful way. While not all the examples are equally interesting, and some belabour the point, one cannot help but be inspired by the ideas. What would life be like if we sought to excel as a group rather than as individuals?

The book is more than a philosophical exercise. Humans have the swarm sensibility built-in; we simply haven't fully applied it. That may be because we haven't had the opportunity, until now. The collaborative possibilities opened up by the internet are bringing smart swarming to the fore. As an example, Miller cites Intellipedia - a Wikipedia-style collaborative site developed by US intelligence services, with information available at various levels of security clearance. Wiki sites have been around for a while, but now that contributors can be drawn from all parts of the globe and their numbers are climbing rapidly, we may finally be able to exploit what the birds and the bees have been up to all along.

Of course, Miller cautions, swarm behaviour in humans can have a downside, especially when it manifests as groupthink or peer pressure. He references this hilarious Candid Camera clip to demonstrate just how strong - and, at times, absurd - our instinct to conform can be. More books on Behaviour

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