Ants, Genes, and Robots

Have you ever watched an ant trail and wondered how the apparent order in these insects come about? Ants are determinedly running back and forth, carrying food and building materials – somehow, you may have thought, this order must have been created. You might have imagined an ant queen ruling over her kingdom, or ants that are genetically programmed to perform their tasks. Indeed, your imagination might tell a lot about yourself1 – as it does about the French revolutionary Latreille, who thought that the colony has “a single will, a single law” based on the love the ants feel for each other.

As Deborah M. Gordon’s recent book “Ant Encounters” shows, the reality might be even more fascinating than Latreille’s altruistic phantasy. Ant behaviour, she writes, is determined by “interaction networks”: “An ant colony’s behavior is guided by a pulsing, shifting web of interactions, in which the pattern of interactions is more important than the content.”

“Understanding how ant colonies actually function”, Gordon writes in an article for the wonderful Boston Review, “means that we have to abandon explanations based on central control”. Each ant responds only to its immediate surroundings and to its interactions with other ants nearby, yet from this interaction network, coordinate behaviour emerges.

One of the most fascinating parts of “Ant Encounters” is devoted to the question how ants communicate. “An ant uses its recent experience to decide what to do. The pattern of interaction itself, rather than any signal transferred, acts as the message”, writes Gordon. It’s not important what ants tell each other when they meet, but simply that they meet.

The author herself reminds us of the stunning parallel between ant behaviour and the self-organization that forms the human body: “Ant colonies, like genes, work without blueprints or programming”, she writes. Just as in ants, the messages of neurons are not transmitted by one neuron, but a multiple. A single neuron can only send an excitatory or an inhibitory signal, or not fire at all. Yet one excitatory signal is not enough, just as one ant can’t tell another what to do – a whole pattern of interactions is necessary to trigger an effect.

On the other hand, Gordon points out where the scientific strife to create cognitive systems still falls short of its aspirations. Engineers have started to model robots after insects, and ants in particular. But even as robots communicate amongst each other to coordinate behaviour, they are far from living beings, writes Gordon: “[T]he complexity of complex biological systems is not what makes living systems unique. One way that living systems are unique […] is that they cause their own development and activity.” A robot is still programmed to achieve a certain goal – an ant can change its task by simply encountering enough nest mates.

Deborah M. Gordon’s “Ant Encounters” gives a fascinating insight into the organization of an ant colony. Most of all, however, it is a great read because it inspires to question common place understandings of communication and organization, far beyond the world of insects.

Deborah M. Gordon: Ant Encounters. Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior. Princeton University Press. 2010.

Crossposted from the BeTA Lab website. BeTA Lab is led by Dr. Sennay Ghebreab, who teaches my course Information, Communication, Cognition. The lab operates “at the crossroad of the brain sciences and information technology”.

  1. If this intrigues you, you might be interested in Diane M. Rogder’s “Debugging the Link Between Social Theory and Social Insects”, which explores the link between political fashion and the interpretation of insect behaviour in depth. []
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Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

I have just started my second semester at Amsterdam University College with a course called “Information, Communication, Cognition”. Trying to link tracks in computer science, media studies and psychology, this course looks at cognitive systems: artificial intelligence and the human brain. It seems pretty interesting so far, and I will probably write more about it on this blog as it unfolds.

For the start, we watched an unusual documentary: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, a 1997 film by Errol Morris. It’s hard to describe this movie without asking: What do an elderly topiary gardener, a retired lion tamer, a man fascinated by mole rats, and a cutting-edge robotics designer have in common?

As it turns out, they share more than they might be aware of. All four of them deal with complex systems – and as different as a bear-shaped tree and a lion, a mole rat colony and an insect-like robot might be, interaction with them has shaped similar ideas in the protagonists of the movie.

Complex systems are not stable. They collaps, like a carefully shaped tree statue burdened by a winterly blizzard’s snow, and they can even turn against their human “master”, like a lion suddenly angered by a hidden irritation.

Often it seems as if such systems have a “will”, as if they where progressing in a determined direction. Yet in fact their behavior emerges from inherent qualities – their design, so to say – and their interaction with the environment (including others of their species).

Sensory capacity is thus extremely important. As in the lion which the tamer holds at distance with a chair – because the lion can only focus on one of its four legs and lets go as the chair is put down.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a great inspiration to think about the behavior of complex systems and our interaction with them. The individual stories of its four protagonists lead to great question – how do complex systems work? What is communication? At first, however, its message might be hard to find – I will definitely watch the movie again, because I’m sure I still missed quite some parts of it.

Finally, I also have to mention the film’s fine and quite unusual cinematography (by Robert Richardson, whose work has won him two Oscars for JFK and The Aviator). I loved how sometimes a scene would go on while a different interviewee started to speak, blurring the lines between their seemingly so distinct fields and often making me realize the connecting link between them. All in all, an inspiring and enjoyable movie.

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Wikipedia: How do you reform a horizontal organization?

Yesterday, I attended a discussion at the office of Wikimedia Germany on Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. There has been a heated debate going on in Germany for a few weeks now, provoked by a series of controversial deletions. So yesterday’s meeting was thought to be an opportunity to articulate criticism and exchange ideas.

There was a lot of anger aimed towards the behavior of Wikipedia’a administrators in general, which I think I don’t need to write about here (for my German readers: I have covered the discussion for One thing that I think was notable is Pavel Mayer’s understanding of notability as a minority right: “If a [strong enough] minority deems something notable the majority doesn’t have the right to say ‘that’s not notable’.”

But a lot – I would even tend to say most – of the criticism was aimed at those attendees that are active members or even administrators of Wikipedia in some kind of accusation. You could always hear the undertone saying “Why don’t you do something about this?”

Which would have been absolutely o.k. if it had been at a meeting with politicians or members of an administrative body. But it was Wikipedia which we were talking about here, and while Wikipedia has some kind of hierarchy (there are about 300 elected administrators for the German language version, elected by those members who have written a certain, but small number of edits), it has no president, no CEO and no king – nobody who could pass a directive to get the ball rolling.

So what has to happen within a community that consists of 600.000 members, 7.000 of which are more or less frequent contributors, to reform a project that has become both very complex and hieratic on its way to success?

Some important obstacles to renewal were already named during the debate. Leon Weber, an active Wikipedia contributor himself, criticized: “He who proposes changes will be cut short.” Long-standing members of the community will position themselves against reforms. And while they may not have formal administrative powers (Wikipedia’s administrators may only execute its rules, but do not have additional rights to invent or abolish them), they do have their influence on the community.

This informal power comes from knowing other active members just as well as being known among them oneself. Reacting to criticism that long-standing Wikipedia contributors could get away with deeds that would newbies get banned, Martin Zeise, an administrator himself, argued that while this was indeed a problem, there was no way to change it. People would always be more forgiving to those who they recognize as an individual – to the bad of newbies who are just an unknown name and an IP number.

At this point, the seemingly non-hierarchical Wikipedia has to deal with the problems of traditional top-down organizations. A homogeneous (young, white, urban, educated, male) caste of long-standing members is blocking of needed reforms. These people have seen the project’s rise to success. They therefore position themselves against radical change, acting on the assumption that what has lead to prosperity will continue to do so.

It was again Leon Weber who pointed this out. In the beginning, when Wikipedia was still struggling to gain credibility, rigorous notability guidelines helped keeping the number of possible articles low and therefore enhanced the quality of those articles meeting the requirements. But nowadays, that’s not timely any more, Weber said: “One has to lower the notability guidelines”.

It is a problem of scaling. While some rules may be of general importance – such as copyright – others are not. They need to be adapted, either because the project has changed (with a stronger community and many articles that are basically completed, lower notability guidelines would be fine), or because its environment did (Wikipedia in German does not deem blogs admissible sources. When it was founded in 2001, blogs were still a tiny niche, but since then, this medium has emerged and is now used by scores of people working according to journalistic standards).

A vivid community should manage this change on the way. In some cases, this might be hard to achieve – software that is continuously enhanced by adding functionalities will at some point develop a performance problem. Radical steps might need to be taken from time to time, like a general relaunch.

Social problems cannot be solved this way. The German-speaking Wikipedia community has waited far too long to face the challenge of adapting itself to changing circumstances. Anne Roth, well-known in Germany for blogging her family’s life under surveillance, pointed out Indymedia Germany as an example for a once vivid open publishing platform she co-founded eight years ago that after a development “similar to Wikipedia’s” she now describes as “a dying community”.

“One cannot try to get through the storm safely without changing anything”, Anne Roth warned. Whether the German Wikipedia community will manage to take the necessary steps is to be seen. If yes, it could set an example how those internet-empowered horizontal organizations that have become an important part of our life can cope with the challenges of renewal.

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