Swarm Intelligence and Free Enterprise

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Delray Beach, FL – Scientists use the term “swarm intelligence” to describe how relatively dumb animals can do amazingly smart things.

Termites, for example, have nearly nonexistent brains. Yet, as pointed out in a HarvardBusiness Review(HBR) article I came across (in a friend’s bathroom, of all places), “they build mounds that are engineering marvels, able to maintain ambient temperature and comfortable levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide even as the nest grows.”

Ants are able to find the shortest possible route from their base to a food source. They do this by working together. Individual ants wander out, walking here and there. As they do, each ant leaves a chemical substance – pheromone – that attracts other ants.

“In a simple case, two ants leave the nest at the same time and take different paths to a food source, marking their trails with pheromone. The ant that took the shorter path will return first, and this trail will now be marked with twice as much pheromone (from the nest to the food and back) as the path taken by the second ant, which has yet to return.”

Humans are generally believed to be more intelligent than social insects. But that doesn’t mean we don’t use swarm intelligence to guide our behavior.

In fact, many of our traditions and rituals may be derived from swarm intelligence, including those connected with marriage, divorce, and even war . Swarm intelligence may also be used to solve complicated problems.

An example from the HBR: a freight-transportation business that used swarm intelligence to figure out its routing parameters. In one instance involving a package bound from Chicago to Boston, it turned out to be more efficient to leave it on a plane heading for Atlanta and then Boston than to take it off and put it on the next flight to Boston.

There is something to this idea that relates to a longstanding “debate” on social issues. On one side are those who believe that problems can be fixed by the ideas of one or a few very smart people. On the other side are those who think that they are way too complex and fickle for any one system to work over time.

There is part of my mind – an arrogant part, I admit – that would like to be in charge of the world’s ills so I could set them straight. There’s another part – the part that has tried and failed – that is inclined to think that social problems are best sorted out over time through swarm intelligence.