Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

Learn from the ants, bees, fish, termites and locusts!

Through a very insightful book, Peter Miller turns to Nature to explain crowd behavior. Leveraging upon numerous scientific studies, Peter elaborates the principles through which even insects with low individual intelligence perform extraordinary feats of brilliance as a group. That too without hierarchy or elaborate rules!

Peter Miller calls this intelligent group behavior - the smart swarm. He then explains how the smart swarm works - using biology to unlock the secrets of collective behavior. The dangers of group behavior are also brought out through the examples of locusts - which is useful to understand how human groups also sometimes turn violent.

What are the principles of smart swarms?

The first principle of a smart swarm is self organization. Through the basic mechanisms of decentralized control, distributed problem solving and multiple interactions, members of a group without being told can transform simple rules of thumb into meaningful patterns of collective behavior. This is explained through the functioning of ant colonies - that is "Though Ant's aren't smart, why Ant colonies are?"

The second principle of a smart swarm is 'diversity of knowledge' - which is basically achieved through a broad sampling of the swarm's options, followed by a friendly competition of ideas. Then using an effective mechanism to narrow down the choices, swarms can achieve 'wisdom of crowds'. The honeybees example of choosing a new nest illustrates this very clearly - and Peter shows how communities and businesses can build trust and make better decisions by adapting this.

The third principle is indirect collaboration. If individuals in a group are prompted to make small changes to a shared structure that inspires others to improve it even further, the structure becomes an active player in the creative process. This is explained beautifully with the example of how termites build huge structures. We also see this in our internet world through Wikis!!!

The fourth principle is adaptive mimicking. With the example of flight behavior of starlings, Peter shows how the basic mechanisms of coordination, communication and copying can unleash powerful waves of energy or awareness that race across a population evoking a feeling of mental telepathy.

The author explains how the above principles will give businesses powerful tools to untangle some of the knottiest problems they face. With examples ranging from Oil, Aircraft manufacturing to Movies, very useful practical situations are given throughout the book.

I would strongly recommend this book all interested in Science & Business.

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