I’ve been reading “Emergence” by Steven Johnson and have really enjoyed the new ideas that he has unraveled. Every once in a while you find a book that is refreshing to read. Strangely, not only is it entertaining but it is also relevant to work. The “Emergence theory” has being getting more focus over the last 10 years. The basic idea is that in nature and in human creations, complex systems are often built from very simple parts. This, by itself, is not much of a revelation. However, the interesting bit is how simple things become something complex.
There are a number of examples in the book that help to clarify what this means. One of the first examples is an ant colony. Based on research on several ant colonies over a long period of time, it has been determined that many of our conclusions are wrong. For example, the queen ant is not queen. Her purpose is solely to lay eggs and create more ants. She doesn’t lead the ants and she only deals with very few ants that tend to her. In other words, there is no central leader in an ant colony. The collective organization is built from individual interactions between ants. Ants have simple rules that dictate what they should do in different situations. These rules change actions based on these different conditions. Viewed from the higher levels, it appears that the colony has intelligence beyond its collective parts. When the environment changes, the ants react without knowledge of the entire colony. These reactions ripple through the interactions which leads to the colony reaction to the event.
The interesting aspect that I didn’t expect was that the colony can learn beyond its individual ant lifespan. It was found that ants are more aggressive and more eratic at younger colony ages. As the colony ages, the “collective” memory is passed to the next generation through action and repeat. Does that remind you of anything else?
Cities are also based on the emergence theory. No central planner could ever anticipate the movements of people in space and time. The more fixed the plan the more likely the failure. The dynamics of a city are based on the interactions of individuals. An individual cannot see the life of the city but the life of the city depends on the collective actions of its citizens. We are incredibly clever (especially compared to ants) but we cannot see clearly the intelligence and complexity of what we have helped to create. It has often been said that it seems like cities are alive. The truth is that the combined actions create something more spectacular than our individual selves.
Software also accomplishes this kind of emergence. Until know this has mostly been unseen and misunderstood, but since the beginning of computers there has always been this concept that component parts are more valuable as a whole than individual parts. Those transistors act much like cells in how they are used to store and transmit messages throughout the world. They are built by us, but in many ways they mimick the nature of our central nervous system and therefore have given emergent life a chance of evolving in the scope of computer technology.
More recently researchers have become more aware of this property and have come to respect the power of bottom up organization compared to the well known top down methods.
It is not the hammer to solve all problems. In fact, it is more important to understand emergence theory than it is to turn around and try to apply it too early. The absolute truth is that balance requires both. Hence we have both but have only focused on top down for ages.
This topic is so interesting for me that I’m going to write more about this later. Consider this part 1 🙂
Stephen Wolfram talks a lot (and I mean a lot) about the emerging of complexity from following simple rules in his mammoth book “A new kind of science” (which it isn’t, but let that pass).
Here’s a simple example of emergence of complexity from a simple starting point. Take a metronome and set it going, at any speed. Add another, operating at a different speed, and you can still hear two. Add a third, and they are just about possible to keep track of. But when you add a fourth, it starts to sound random. (Add enough, and statistically it’ll all start to sound the same, curiously enough.) But just four metronomes are enough to generate emergent pseudo-randomness. You could simulate this in code easily enough.
I agree that Johnsons book is a very interesting take on the topic of emergent systems. I would also add that Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers touch upon the intelligence of the colony in their fascinating book ‘A Simpler Way’. The concept of how the ‘memory of the nest’ seems to change over time, a as the nest matures and subsequent generations of ants would appear to be affected by the ‘accumulated memory’ can be explained another way. Field theories propose that fields of information are being tapped into by living things. Two of the most notable examples of these ‘fields’ come from Rupert Sheldrake http://www.sheldrake.org/homepage.html and Ervin Laszlo’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ervin_László) Akashic Field theory. I have just completed writing a book entitled ‘Teaching an Anthill to Fetch – Developing Collaborative Intelligence @Work’ which explores the practical ways we could (as a species) tap into more of the ‘collaborative intelligence’ that is developed so well in so many insect colonies. With respect to ant colonies and behavior I found Deborah Gordon’s book ‘Ants at Work’ and Bert Holldobler & Edward O. Wilson’s book ‘Journey to the Ants’ two of the most interesting references. The development of collaborative intelligence (CQ as I call it) is one of most important stages the human species will have undergo if we are to survive on a planet where a quarter of the 149 nations are presently at war. In other words IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence) will only take us so far – we have to learn how to collaborate at more deep levels for this thing called ‘Earth’ to work.
I have been slow to add a reply to these clever comments.
Perhaps they were too clever for me. 🙂
Hugh, I think I have seen this experiment on TV before. It does ring a bell and I remember thinking how odd it was that order/chaos seemed to appear out of no where. The perceptions of the mind are difficult to understand from within. Obviously it would take an outside observer (from outside reality?) to fully understand what is happening.
Stephen, thanks for the voluminous amounts of reference material along with a sample of your upcoming book. Your timing is impeccable. I have become very interested in everything to do with distributed systems and emergence is obviously high in my thoughts right now.
My goal this year to better understand the workings of an ant colony based on the research that you mentioned. It is key that these kind of discoveries will uncover more of the truth of how the universe works and survives.
Please keep me posted with how the book is going. I really enjoyed reading the section you gave me.