Intelligent idiots

Posted by on Nov 15, 2007 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments


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…


  1. John
    November 16, 2007

    As we learned at London Zoological Society, all you need is a robofish!

  2. mark Earls
    November 16, 2007

    Apparently R4 had someone on tonight who’s produced a robo-cockroach…

  3. Tom
    November 17, 2007

    Brings the idea to me that ‘shocks’ to that self – governing system can be powerful.
    What would the nature of these shocks be (ie. in relation to the dynamics of the system in question’, how can we use them, actively or proactively etc.

  4. mark Earls
    November 18, 2007

    Good question, Tom.
    Beginning to think that one of the things tht our marketing et al interventions do is distort the existing system (e.g. by creating new connections or amplifying/fuelling certain existing connections).
    That’s a how, not a what, I know but…