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Intelligence (and more) from Unenlighted Little Parts
on November 19, 2001
If you see an ant, you pay it little attention. It's the lines of ants that are really fascinating, and the colonies that really get things done. An ant by itself is not only a speck, it is a humble one, capable of little. It isn't just a matter of getting a lot of ants together so that by sheer numbers they multiply what one ant can do. Ants organize. They communicate. They have tasks, they assign workers, they shift assignments as old jobs get done and new ones come up. We have tried to understand this sort of organization in our own way. To get such things done ourselves, we would have to have a leader and subleaders, and in trying to understand ants, we even attributed to the queen of the ant colony a sort of CEO status. She isn't, of course; she is an egg-laying machine, but she is deep in the darkest parts of the colony, and has no idea about what her workers are doing or how to respond to quality assurance suggestions. She is not the chief of the bureaucracy of the ant colony. Something else is. Who is giving the orders?
No one. The ants are self-organizing, according to Steven Johnson, whose bright book _Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software_ (Scribner) is obviously not just about ants. Ants are just an easy example. Johnson's book is full of satisfying analogies. Take your brain, for instance. Those neurons don't know anything. Each one is capably of firing when stimulated, and that's about it. "No individual neuron is sentient," Johnson writes, "and yet somehow the union of billions of neurons creates self-awareness." Adam Smith posited an "invisible hand" which set the prices in economic systems, some supply and demand force that was completely free of any sort of conscious human control (just as the slime cells didn't have a higher authority). It wasn't planned, it just happened because of the number of independent actors on the economic stage. The immune system possessed by each of us gets smarter over the years as its biochemical parts share information, and it responds with individualized defenses, but it isn't conscious and it has no memory. The host and hostess of that last party you went to didn't decree that everyone would gather in the kitchen, but it happened anyway. Though cities may have a government, no one has told them to set up offices in the center, and branch off into suburbs and malls around them, and no one designed individual neighborhoods to be havens for artists or for homosexuals. The silicon circuits in a handheld computer can't do much but flop on and off, but they can learn your handwriting with remarkable skill. Other electronic stupids at Amazon.com can tell from what you have ordered what might appeal to you in the future, and offer up "your" selections with much more skill than an ad designed for everyone could possibly do.
Emergence is being used in video games, and undoubtedly will be a larger part of the software we interact with every day. There have, up to now, only been primitive and clumsy attempts to allow web sites and browsing to feed back on themselves in some emergent fashion to give users quicker access to just the site they had been long looking for. Couch potatoes, too, would make great ants, since there are so many of them and they could be simply connected with minimal feedback systems, with emergent miniseries and music videos as a result. When Johnson enters the ring as a prophet, one can only allow that his schemes might come to pass and we will have to wait and see. But in explaining a natural system (followed by a technological one) which has been present since before our neurons organized themselves but which has been appreciated by that organization only in the last few decades, Johnson displays enthusiasm and didactic skill. Some are hailing his book as a milestone on the path to the future, and maybe it is, but perhaps more important, it is an exhilarating and instructive course in a current trend of thought.