Smart Swarm: Using Animal Behaviour to Organise Our World Paperback – 14 Apr 2011
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‘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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I'd recommend this book to anyone how may not be familiar with this field, but seeking an entertaining story about it. The references are good enough to pursue the original articles granted that the reader want's further in depth understanding.
For the curious reader thinking "cool - what's this complex stuff all about?" I would recommend this book as an easy read prior to reading Scott Page & John H. Miller's Complex Adaptive Systems, as Peter Miller's book gives a good story to remember, whilst Page & Millers provides a more in-depth explanation of how it works.
However, the last chapter about locusts are interesting, I enjoyed that bit.
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.
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.