Swarm intelligence

I came across this very interesting article from 2007 by Peter Miller that I had not seen before on the National Geographic website that discusses the importance of swarm intelligence and by inference ‘the wisdom of crowds’

In an experiment on how bees select a new home, tracking and observation of individual bees showed that scouts would search for suitable accomodation until a threshold of 15 bees clustered at a suitable home. They would then collectively return to the main swarm and communicate this option. First group of 15 back indicating the best alternative.

“The bees’ rules for decision-making—seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices.”

I find this interesting in so many ways:

  • The number 15 appears as a limit in studies of the human mind as the number of people you might categorise as as ‘nearest and dearest’, ie individuals you would be extremely upset about if they died.
  • As a mechanism to narrow choices this is how ‘trend monitoring’ sites such as BlogPulse pick up and highlight blogs of interest
  • Part of the thinking behind the Sensemaker software suite in that the narrative fragments can be encouraged/invited ambiguously and signified ambiguously to maximise diversity but the ‘patterns of sense’ can be visualised across all the material.

Human collective intelligence is often said to be sabotaged by the fact that we think too much before we make a decision, which introduces cognitive bias, or alternatively think too little because of our tendancy to ‘first fit’ tarher than ‘best fit’. Either way I like this final summing up which has implications on how we play our part in slowing down climate change:

“… an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won’t be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it’s made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part. For those of us who sometimes wonder if it’s really worth recycling that extra bottle to lighten our impact on the planet, the bottom line is that our actions matter, even if we don’t see how.”


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