Last week the journal Science published a story on a team from Harvard University who have design robots to work in tandem to build structures. The report came with a video of the robots in what seemed to be a set plan of design. However this was not the case, and this is why the story made the news.
What made this newsworthy was that these robots were not given any plans at all to build anything. That is to say they were not given any direct plan or blueprint to build any specific structure. What these robots were given was a basic set of simple rules to help them navigate in their environment.
That is to say the robots did not know what they were going to make, and more importantly the people who designed them had no idea what they would make either. What the scientist did know is that these robots were designed to act only on immediate and external cues to dictate their actions. In other words the team at Harvard is trying to create robots that can exhibit self organizing behavior.
There are many reasons here why self organizing robots are important, one is to create artificial machines that can perform organic functions without the risk of a central nerve system being hijacked or destroyed, another is to have robots perform complex functions in places where it would be too dangerous for humans to get to, and also that those projects would not go to waste if humans lost contact with these worker bots.
The beauty here is that the idea of an autonomous self organizing system is far from new at all, in fact it is taken from nature. In this particular instance the inspiration of design came from how termites function within a group. Termites, like ants and many other social insect groups function as a self organizing system. The beneficiaries of millions of years of evolutionary coding, large social groups like termites or ants survive by not needing a centralized plan or blueprint, they use simple cues from their surrounding environments to dictate their next movement. These individual movements and behaviors are only executed with the individual organisms interest in mind but ultimately benefit the group as a whole.
French biologist Pierre-Paul Grass’e coined the term in 1959 referring to termite behavior as ‘stigmergy’.
“Defined as ‘stimulation of workers by the performance they have achieved.’ It is derived from the Greek words stigma ‘mark,sign’ and ergon ‘work,action’, and captures the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment, signs that it and other agents sense and that determine and incite their subsequent actions.”
If that definition looks familiar, it means that you have been spending too much time on Wikipedia, but if you have, then you are directly benefiting and most likely contributing to a stigmergy. Wikipedia, was one of the first cultural phenomenons of stigmergy used on the internet, a program designed as a self organizing system. In fact the concept of links themselves are an example of the 'sign/action' relationship of stigmergy.
Which brings us back to the scientist at Harvard and and their termite/bots.
Just as the idea of humans using self-organizing systems to improve robotic performance is profound, the idea of humans using self-organizing (stigmatic) systems on themselves to improve human performance may be more profound.
As humans have expanded their reach on the planet, the natural way to organize was in a hierarchal system. Meaning that we have gone from small groups of hunters and gathers to large city states and now to a massive grouping of nations. With each nation trying to gather information through a bureaucratic process that grows slower and slower.
Each day information travels at an exponentially increasing rate, which is changing how human society functions. One effect this has had is to make the old ways of getting things done look more and more archaic with each day. This speed of information creates an effect of humans transcending man made boarders as well as conceptual boarders. The effect this has had is to magnify the differences between the fluid, modern systems and the cumbersome, out-of-date ones.
By its mechanistic design, the creation of ‘cyber space’ and the internet have forced the hand of human ideas of how social order functions. Those ideas include politics, property rights, media, news distribution, the medical field, and of course money.
For the sake of brevity lets stay with the example of currency.
Crypto currency was born roughly in 2008/09’, possibly as a computer hackers reaction to the massive economic collapse. The first and most famous one is bitcoin, which is really the only one we hear about these days. However there are plenty of crypto-currencies out there, as of last year there were a reported 60 currencies that existed somewhere on the internet.
This is an important aspect to a stigmergent system, that a wide variety of options exist for an organism to work itself in and out of certain situations.
Another important aspect for the survival of these types of systems is the reason for its evolution as a self-organizing system. In the case of a crypto currency the climate which it emerged out of (the financial crisis) was screaming for a form of currency to be fluidly exchanged on open markets without a centralized bank weighing it down with heavy taxes and threat of the state freezing assets.
In fact it was another crisis that establish bitcoin as a currency that needed to be recognized. Bitcoin’s initial success came mainly from black market sites like the now defunct ‘Silk Road’, but it became a real story that mainstream media had to address during the height of the European currency crisis. After the threat by the government of Cypress to freeze assets on banks in order to pay down government debt, many people turned to bitcoin as a way to transfer their money to something not regulated by a state run system.
In addition to the external phenomenon of bitcoin’s success against more established currencies, the success of bitcoin against other crypto currencies can be also be attributed to another aspect of stigmatic systems. That is known as swarm intelligence, another concept taken from biological systems. In this case, the ‘swarm’ are the minors who maintain a system of checks and balances so that the system doesn’t get hacked and money get stolen. That is because the system is designed on a proof-of-work system where every new bitcoin created would need the computational power of the entire team of bitcoin minors. This result comes out of a purely mathematical function that results in the cost of hacking so high it is not worth the effort.
Whether bitcoin succeeds as a currency is really a secondary point to this story, failure would only result in a wave of new currencies that emerge stronger from the mutated failures of the previous one. However the bigger picture here is that whether it is citizens of a failed government policy turning to a deregulated currency or protestors turning to Facebook or Twitter when their government wants to shut them down, more and more options are appearing for the individual to act and in turn benefit the whole of society.