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13 June 2011

Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

Peter Miller used his 25 years as editor and writer for National Geographic, to create a fascinating, thought-provoking book that explores some of the complex, dynamic collaborations found in nature.

These collaborations and the scientific process of their discovery are explored in detail, and with beautiful writing clarity, along with examples of inspired-by-nature solutions to some of our more impenetrable puzzles.

As the book progresses he uncovers four key collaboration traits, namely Self Organisation, Diversity of Information, Indirect Collaboration and Adaptive Mimicking.

Ant colonies use self organisation to solve problems by distributing tasks across a very large number of individuals, using a system based on a few very simple rules. The end result is efficient resource allocation in complex, unpredictable and rapidly changing systems - an ideal model for resolving computational-hungry problems such as efficient aircraft boarding and the travelling salesman scenario.

Bee colonies exhibit diversity of information through individually acquired knowledge, which gives each bee a slightly different perspective. Decisions are made on a majority voting process, but crucially an individual only votes after they have personally assessed the situation. The end result is sound decision making, which isn't based on a follow-the-crowd scenario. It's a technique that has been successfully used by Boeing's flight operations, test and validation (FOT&V) organisation.

Termites use indirect collaboration to work together as a single unit, combining a multitude of small shared contributions. The end result is a process that can effectively and efficiently tackle very large projects and is an ideal model for networks and self-healing systems. Wiki sites, blogs and social tagging all work on this stigmergy basis.

Flocking birds, schooling fish and herding animals rely on adaptive mimicking to achieve their spontaneous and highly coordinated displays. Yet it all happens simply by each individual watching a few of their closest neighbours. Recognising how this works, helps to understand crowd flow dynamics, predict patterns at mass-protest events and design stadiums and other similar large-crowd structures.

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