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Smart Swarm: Using Animal Behaviour to Organise Our World Hardcover – 5 Aug 2010
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‘Smart Swarm blends zoology, entertaining anecdotes and conceptual discussion in an approachable and insightful way.’ – New Scientist
‘‘Smart Swarm blends zoology, entertaining anecdotes and conceptual discussion in an approachable and insightful way.’ – New Scientist
‘There have been other recent books about swarm intelligence, and the wisdom of crowds, but Miller's book is the sharpest, most readably intelligent guided tour of current thinking and research about collective intelligence and nature's basic collaborations.’ – Iain Finlayson, The Times
‘Peter Miller gives us a lively account of how studying the collective habits, actions and instincts of animals in the wild means that we can apply these strategies to organising and communicating in our own world. – The Times, Eureka
‘I loved The Smart Swarm. It's been a while since I was this stimulated by a book, or saw so many practical applications. And what a great read' – Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics
There have been other recent books about swarm intelligence, and the wisdom of crowds, but Miller's exploration of the insect hive mind is fascinating enough, but his real interest is in the way humans can harness this phenomenon to structure businesses.’ – BBC Focus
‘It all makes for a fascinating read, not least for the insight Miller provides into the arcane workings of the animal kingdom. The book also raises interesting questions about our own behaviour and what it takes for us to work for a common goal.’ – BA Business Life
About the Author
Peter Miller has been a writer and senior editor at National Geographic for over twenty-five years. He lives with his wife PJ in Reston, Virginia.
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The keystone of the book is that distributed intelligence can work among largely unintelligent organisms with very short memories by exploiting positional information, and each organism responding to its near neighbours. Birds in a flock, for example, can act as a super organism as each bird responds only to six or seven of its near neighbours. Honey bees can pseudo-democratically determine the best choice of hive location by the extent to which bees 'lobby' for their choice, and the extent to which other bees fall in with this. While no single entity controls or understands what is happening, the overall decision making process can produce highly optimal results.
The use of computer software 'agents' which follow simple rules is shown in Smart Swarm to be a highly useful programming tool which can solve problems in linear regression, such as choosing the best combination of flights and holiday resorts, far more efficiently than traditional methods. However, the applications to local democracy in Vermont, described in detail, are a little more far-fetched, and it's difficult to see how these things are 'like' the smart swarms in nature, except by analogy and metaphor.
All in all this is a book of fascinating insights into animal behaviour, highly interesting in relation to computer and systems architecture, but rather less compelling in its underlying promise of using animal behaviour to organise our own world.
A notable omission is a discussion of how this relates to Crowdsourcing. The term 'Crowdsourcing' is not in the index, and I don't recall seeing it in the book, although some of the examples, particularly the 'ask the audience' example, are the same. Crowdsourcing relates to harnessing expertise from the crowd, whereas Smart Swarm relates to harnessing organisational, non-expert, intelligence. Nonetheless, the concepts ought to be complementary, and I'm a little puzzled as to why this isn't explored.
This is an interesting read, and will stimulate further thought. However, the rules of organisational intelligence which the author puts together are perhaps insufficient to make this a game-changing book for most businesses.
Given that one of the academics in my former research group works in the field of complexity science, with an emphasis on the critical behaviour of ant colonies, I thought it would be interesting to see what this book had to say on the subject. Of course, this is an introductory book rather than a technical or mathematical text, but there is still plenty of good material. It's questionable as to whether the book really fulfils its selling point of teaching cooperative tactics that can be used in the boardroom, but in all honesty, this doesn't matter - it's still filled with interesting facts and observations about how various different species of animals have evolved various systems of cooperation.
Unfortunately, the writing style is not always as coherent as it could be, and there are points where this obscures the point the author is making - for example, during the bee chapter, the explanation of how the hive chooses a new location is not only somewhat confusing, but appears to contradict itself later in the chapter. It's passages like these that make the book less useful than it could have been if it had just had a bit more clarity.
Overall, while not quite as good as it could have been, this is a decent enough introductory book on the subject. You may not want it to keep it on your shelf forever, but if you're interested in the subject, it's worth reading at least once.
Did you know that when the ants clean out there nest, each ant sort of wanders around randomly and picks up a bit of detritus and seems to haphazardly drop it a short distance away? Yet a time lapse of the whole colony shows the dirt building up in a ridge in a very organized way.
Now, neither of these behaviours involves free choice or intelligent decision making. Each has an evolutionary advantage to the colony and has been ruthlessly reinforced by natural selection. Each ant could be modelled in a computer with a simple automaton and the colony would show collective intelligence.
The biological examples covered in the book range far and wide: a shoal of fish avoiding a predator; a flock of starlings; an ant or bee colony. We also see examples such as the modelling of the battle scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where each protagonist is given a simple set of rules to follow and yet we the viewers see an organized and realistic battle scene.
I feel that the book only fails when it tries to explain in layman terms some of the applications of swarm behaviour. For instance, the example is given of two models for airline seat booking: conventional, where you queue to check in and reserve a seat, and EasyJet, where there is a free-for-all to grab a seat. Each involves queues and delays, if you want a good seat or a group wish to sit together. A third method is mentioned, where you arrive at boarding early, reserve a queue in the line and then go off until boarding starts. This model is superior because checkin is shorter and you don't have to stay in a queue for hours. The only problem is, what does it have to do with smart swarms?
An example is also given of the shortest path algorithm, where ants find a trail to food and on return lay down a scent trail: this scent trail is reinforced on the shortest path, relative to the longer paths from colony to food, for the simple reason that in a given time a greater number of ants will be able to follow a short trail back and forth than will be able to follow any longer one. This one I liked, because it is similar to the well-known algorithm to solve this problem, an algorithm that can be applied in a similarly haphazard manner. However, when, instead, the travelling salesman problem is considered, the argument failed even this mathematician!
So, an interesting book with lots of insight into how complicated looking tasks can be solved by a swarm using simple behaviour, but with some contrived examples to confuse the reader. Overall, recommended.
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