Birds Of A Feather

One of our stronger cognitive intuitions is to assume, in the presence of organized systems, that there is some central, organizing agency at work. In recent decades, however, it has become apparent that extraordinarily sophisticated group-level behavior can arise as a result of distributed local decision-making, using very simple rules.

Among the best examples of this is the behavior of swarms. Nobody’s in charge — each bird or fish or insect operates entirely autonomously, according to its local copy of the instructions — but the swarm acts very much as if its behavior is co-ordinated at the level of the swarm itself. Indeed, it can seem that the group taken as a whole exhibits a kind of emergent intelligence that is present in none of its mindless constituents.

For a truly impressive example, have a look here.

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5 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    I highly recommend Michael Crichton’s Prey to you, if you haven’t already read it. One of the major topics in the book is swarming behavior. The back of the novel contains a long bibliography representing the research Crichton had done for the story. Those sources might be of interest as well.

    (In fact, I may have mentioned Prey to you once or twice before; I’m over 40 now, so I tend to repeat myself even more than I used to.)

    Posted January 4, 2010 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  2. Charles says

    That was beautiful. Ot Moor is now on my list of places to visit the next time I’m in England.

    Posted January 4, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Yep — just amazing.

    Posted January 4, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  4. “Indeed, it can seem that the group taken as a whole exhibits a kind of emergent intelligence that is present in none of its mindless constituents.”

    I’d have to disagree on this point. I would perhaps refer to “emergent behavior” of the flock, rather than “emergent intelligence,” and I wouldn’t consider the individual birds to be mindless, though I’d agree that they probably don’t have a concept of “flock.”

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted January 5, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Well, I was thinking of the “intelligence”, for example, of ant colonies; the colony certainly seems far smarter than any particular ant.

    Posted January 5, 2010 at 5:18 pm | Permalink