world war E
dispatches from the network society

global swarming

How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical decision about their hive if many of them disagree? What enables a school of herring to coordinate its movements so precisely it can change direction in a flash, like a single, silvery organism?

Computer simulations are advancing the science of swarm behavior and helping apply it to everything from understanding traffic jams to air traffic control and supply chain optimization. The multinational industrial gas supplier Air Liquide, for instance, uses a swarm algorithm to manage its truck distribution network:

It takes four hours to run, even with the biggest computers we have. But at six o’clock every morning we get a solution that says how we’re going to manage our day.

The combination of biological, behavioral and computer science holds intriguing possibilities for the trajectory of artificial intelligence and distributing computing, although it is evident that swarm models rely on brute processing strength and the relatively low cost of individual nodes.

The U.S. DOD is applying these techniques, as noted below on this blog, to a battlefield mesh network of LANdroids. Similar efforts are underway for more civilian emergency applications, such as fire and earthquake rescue. A research grounp in Brussels is attempting what it describes as ‘swarmenoids’, robots that use ad hoc networks and swarm intelligence to coordinate their specific functions into a coherent action.

“foot-bots” to transport things on the ground, “hand-bots” to climb walls and manipulate objects, and “eye-bots” to fly around, providing information to the other units.

A chilling vision of the future? Or a welcome augmentation to human activity?

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