Thursday, 30 June 2011

Debugged - Swarms Caught in the Net

Suprakash Roy

A lot of the mystique of the Social Media and the magical powers ascribed to it stem from a paradigm shift in the nature of organisation.

Through FaceBook, Twitter, Wikipedia and common open source platforms, we find the weird phenomenon of strangers, otherwise unconnected people, collaborating with each other without any economic incentive, with no central organisation or management. For a twentieth century citizen of the world, the products of social engineering built in infinitesimal packets by such collaborated effort of thousands is indeed a major shift in the way the world works.
The question of economic incentive and the lack thereof have been discussed in other places in this issue.
In this article we look at the pros and cons, the scope and limits of organisation without organisation, and to do this we observe other intelligent life forms which have been doing this ever since the advent of life on earth.
A lot of lessons on the unusually connected world, the combined power of thought and mass reactions can be deduced from the world of smart swarms. If we look at the working lives of ants, termites, birds, fish, locusts, caribou and other creatures, we get several insights into the world of organisation with central leadership. And from thence, I will try to infer how much of all that is possible in the world of birds and bees can be replicated in the human world of cyberspace.
People have  a problem in deducing how a lot of weakly linked efforts that are independent and chaotic in seclusion can produce phenomenally useful products. However, that is the hallmark of Social Engineering.
Wikipedia is a sterling example of the wonders of such collaboration, a fascinating integration of infinitesimal contributions across innumerable individuals – a freely editable, yet unregulated platform which has overtaken the scholastic institutional importance of Encyclopaedia Britannica and others. Contributors are often unnamed, identifiable by only a cryptic sequence of dots and digits signifying IP Address., a behemoth retail in its own right, is also a compelling study of how individuals unknown and at diverse ends of the world can influence one another through same or similar purchases, reviews, lists, tagging and discussions. The same can be witnessed in thousands of online spaces from Expedia to TripAdvisor to FaceBook groups.
The cascading effect of the connected world is also witnessed in, where popularity of search results propel them to the top, leading to more and more hits when subsequent people start searching similar keywords.
It is as if there is global consciousness at work, decisions influenced not by individual thought, but a combination of infinite nuggets of ideas and opinions.
Some of these phenomena are mirrored in striking parallels by the animal world.
When a group of ants forage for food, one can witness a lot of chaotic and unstructured individual movements all around, which somehow converge into effective and surprisingly economic gathering of food, with almost esoteric communication about dangers that lurk in the form of hungry predators in the neighbourhood.
Scientific studies have discovered that this communication is not just a result of messages passed by the rubbing of antennae. The ants use a communicating method that is very similar to the algorithms of page hits and external links used by Google and other engines. Whenever an ant leaves the nest and scours for food, it secretes pheromones that mark the path traversed. And when food is discovered, the ant comes carrying the booty back to the nest using exactly the same path, and hence the pheromone trail gets stronger. Pheromone tracks traversed once are lighter and evaporate with time, and thus only the successful paths retain the strong group history of foraging. Ants who venture out later follow the tracks which have the strongest pheromone prints, leaving their own pheromone trail on them, thus managing in the trial and error methods to collectively converge onto the food. Maximum efficiency through information sharing without centralised management. It is remarkably the same way that page hits and independent links dictate the subsequent search results on Google and other search engines. The same way that previous Amazon sales influence more purchase.
Moving onto the world of termites, we see remarkable gifts at building their elaborately engineered and extremely intricate homes popularly known as ant hills. These residences take years to be built and have complex indoor features, with air temperature regulatory ducts and channels, proper living and community quarters. Not only are these magnificent structures built through a series of chaotic movements without any leadership, the termites also demonstrate remarkable resilience in rebuilding entire sections damaged by external agents. Thousands of working insects just come together and do what is necessary, their individual movements as random as possible.
This remarkable self organisation is known as stigmergy. First introduced in 1959 by French Biologist Pierre Paul Grasse, it has now become an accepted term, which denotes indirect coordination between agents, with seemingly intelligent structures reacting to the immediate environment, without being in direct coordination or communication with one another, but producing something which is useful to all.
Termites carrying building material, start dropping their wares in random locations. When other termites, still bearing their building stuff, come across material already dropped, they simply start adding their load on the existing rudimentary components. And through repetition of the same principles, objects are placed on one another and soon scaffolding and structures develop.
None of the termites have a blueprint or plan. Every one of them react to the existing environment and pitch in to build something significant.
In more than remarkable ways, this resembles the method behind Wikipedia. In fact, in the Wikipedia article on stigmergy, it is stated that Wikipedia itself is an example of the phenomenon at work. Open source software projects are also examples of how this termite like technique can result in social engineering.
So, when we see that the cyber-connected modern species benefitting from behaviours which have their roots in insect habits, the question to ask is how far can the intelligent humans go with this? Can we not predict that these building blocks of information nuggets, these electronic tracks left by others pointing to important information, are gradually ushering an age of empowered information and knowledge aided liberation to democracy? Cannot rebellions be generated by the same principles of stigmergy?
To answer these, we need to turn towards the honey bees. When a swarm of honey bees change their accommodation to move to a new one, they send out representatives to scout for new locations, and through a unique mechanism, achieve consensus about the best possible new home. Invariably, their decision is always correct. They choose the best available option.
How do they do it?                                                                               
The scouting bees come across possible locations and zoom back to the group, communicating their respective finds to the rest of the group through elaborate dance movements. The other bees, attracted by the dances, go and check the places themselves, and come back to register their impressions to the remainder of the group. The best prospective accommodation, in due course of time, are sold to the others with a lot more prolonged dance routines and more and more of the swarm converge there. The inferior places soon find fewer supporters and consequently shorter dance recitals speaking of their merits to the rest of the group. Finally, majority triumphs, and the correct decision is made.

Can human beings replicate this sort of decision making?
If we look at historical data, from Mussolini to George Bush, from the Nazis to the Bay of Pigs, we can conclude that we are far inferior to the honey bees in decision making.
The difference between us, intelligent creatures, and them, the efficient insects, can be expressed in one principle of the celebrated process consultant Dr. Edward Deming. Constancy of purpose.
None of the honey bees, when coming back with the information about the prospective living quarters, dilute or overstate facts. None of the subsequent scouts who go to check out their finds approve or reject the locations because of personal dynamics with the other honeybees, hive lobbies or personal agenda. The insects have just one guiding purpose – to find the best place to relocate. This simplicity can guide them to the best possible decision, something that human beings can never aspire to.
Would a human scout in similar circumstances limit himself to communicating only the relevant positives of the location, or would there be much more noise and dance directed by personal ambition, power play, relationships and agenda?
Consider the example of the ants leaving their pheromone trail.  In principle, Google search results work in exactly the same way. However, there are dirty secrets in the history of the premier search engine of the world.
Not long ago, J.C. Penney started topping the search result listings not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).
This lasted crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. When one typed in “Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance, Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of
The search results were later discovered to have been manipulated by paying to have links placed on thousands of sites, each of which directly pointed to, hence confusing the organic algorithm of Google and making sure that the retail chain was the most popular search result even when people were looking for recipes of Chinese food. Some of these sites were obviously created just to have the links pasted on them.
A spokesperson from J.C. Penney, however, categorically denied that this manipulation was done by the company. Well, let us leave it at that to look back and laugh later.

When the ants leave pheromone trails guiding others to find food, the solitary instinctive purpose of the community is to eat and survive. However, if a similar trail is left on the net by a group of individuals, it does not necessarily mean that the direction pointed to is correct. Noise is created about unsuccessful forays ever so often, in fields as diverse as politics, corporate world, marketing and religion. There is no guarantee that the strong pheromones will actually lead to food, or that vaporised tracks do not eventually lead to delicious offerings.
We see the manipulation worldwide. In Amazon, new products are launched for pre-order accompanied by hundreds of favourable reviews of supposed users. Underground companies exist which write hundreds of five star reviews for a price.  There are ways and means to pitchfork products into the best seller category by synchronising purchases by organised volunteers, to doctor the Amazon ranking system.  Once in the best seller list, the pheromone phenomenon takes over, maintaining the ranks and sales of the products.

The difference with the insect world is that human beings do not have the single goal of converging on and consuming the best product. There are various factions at work to influence decisions. Constancy of purpose is conspicuous by its sacrifice on the altar of multiplicity.
While Wikipedia is one of the success stories in this environment, with the termite like stigmergy showing signs of working in the human world, it is not totally secure from abuse.
The CIA is known to edit Wikipedia pages on a regular basis, an extension of their age old experiments for mind and thought control. In fact, the agency is so impressed by the power of the wiki, they use a similar application – Intellopedia – for collaborating on information sharing.
Additionally, there are individuals – uncountable millions – who make inserts with vested interests on popular pages to promote their products or ideas.
In such a world, the constancy of purpose that is so important for success of internet aided ventures and revolution, unfortunately, is most likely to be found in the fundamentalist, fanatic organisations, government funded and intelligence monitored wikis and blogospheres.

While Wikipedia, sharing technical knowledge about specific scientific and educational interests, Google Books and Open Source Software are definitely the boons of the modern connected world, liberation in form of truth and online activism to promote democracy still seem some way off because human beings are too intelligent for that.

Dr. Suprakash Roy appears in The Best Seller, a novel by Arunabha Sengupta.
A cyber conscious mender of minds, he is interested in the effect of the modern world of the internet and social networking in changing human behaviour.
His opinions, extrapolated from the novel can be found at :

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