Re: sphexish behavior in ants

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Mon Sep 10 2001 - 09:46:53 MDT

From: "Anders Sandberg" <>
> I think the explanation is that the ants use external memory: instead of
> trying to keep information in their tiny brains, they rely on chemical
> markers. If an ant finds something tasty, it starts laying down a "great
> food this way" trail on its way back to the anthill. Other ants follow
> it, and when they find tasty food they also start to lay down a trail.
> Eventually a very strong and straight trail emerges, bringing lots of
> ants.
> In your case I guess it must have been the nectar and ambrosia of ants
> they discovered, so they really poured on the trail. When the food
> vanished they still follwed it, and since they don't have a "nothing to
> see here" trail chemical it remained, diverting ants from more
> productive work. In time it will evaporate, but if there are traces of
> the nectar nearby they might still be confused enough to replenish the
> trail.
> Hmm, might be useful for a "nice" pesticide: spray trail chemicals
> around so that the ants will waste their resources. It will only work on
> ants, and perhaps only on a single species of ants, but it sounds really
> ecologically friendly (with the caveat of removing the ants, of course).
> Extropian relevance: shows the power of spontaneous orders, and how a
> very simple such order can sometimes go wrong. Foresight helps.

Just Like Ants, Computers Learn From the Bottom Up
Steven Johnson's 1997 book, "Interface Culture," remains one of the most
thoughtful, literate studies yet published on the cultural impact of recent
technological changes. Writing in lucid, user-friendly prose and drawing
analogies from a prodigious range of fields (including literature, painting,
architecture, philosophy and semiotics), Mr. Johnson made the provocative
argument that the graphic interface - those software- mediated interactions
between users and computers - is potentially "a medium as complex and vital as
the novel or the cathedral or the cinema." In much the same way that the
novels of Dickens attempted to make sense of the galvanic changes unleashed by
the Industrial Revolution, he suggested, today's high-tech interfaces are
providing us with tools to grapple with the dislocations and data overload
wrought by the information revolution.

In his latest book, "Emergence," Mr. Johnson, who is the editor in chief of
the online magazine Feed, focuses on a subject he touched on, in passing, in
that earlier book - namely, the phenomenon of self-organization, represented
by feedback systems and intelligent software that anticipates our needs. This
phenomenon, known as emergence, is embodied by "bottom-up" systems that use
"relatively simple components to build higher-level intelligence." Ants build
complex colonies; city residents create distinct neighborhoods; simple pattern
recognition software learns to recommend new books or music based on our
previous choices. In each case, developments proceed not from some central
authority dictating plans from above but from the cumulative actions of
low-level agents below.

Given the somewhat abstruse nature of emergence, this book tends to be less
immediately engaging than "Interface Culture" and more disorganized. Mr.
Johnson must spend a lot of time explaining the concept of emergence and
illustrating it with examples before he can look at its social implications,
and he frequently repeats the same information from slightly different angles.
Despite such difficulties, he once again demonstrates his range as a cultural
historian and his ability to make the reader see connections among
developments in fields as disparate as urban studies, evolutionary science and
artificial intelligence.

In the course of "Emergence," Mr. Johnson draws parallels between the "climax
stage" in city life - defined in the 1960's by Lewis Mumford as the point
beyond which a city cannot grow without suffering deterioration and a loss of
civic unity - and the runaway growth being sustained by Internet communities
today. He compares the changed expectations for rock music created by the
daring work of early groups like the Velvet Underground to the exciting new
possibilities being opened in the areas of software and game design by
innovators like Eric Zimmerman, who created the game Gearheads. And he
associates the collective intelligence exhibited by ant colonies (which,
contrary to popular belief, are not led or directed by a "queen") with the
"bottom-up powers of emergence" exhibited by games like the best- selling

Mr. Johnson argues that "some of the great minds of the last few centuries -
Adam Smith, Friedrich Engels, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing - contributed to the
unknown science of self-organization, but because the science didn't exist yet
as a recognized field, their work ended up being filed on more familiar
shelves." "They were wrestling with local issues, in clearly defined fields,"
he writes. "How ant colonies learn to forage and build nests; why industrial
neighborhoods form along class lines; how our minds learn to recognize faces.
You can answer all of these questions without resorting to the sciences of
complexity and self- organization, but those answers all share a common
pattern, as clear as the whorls of a fingerprint. But to see it as a pattern
you needed to encounter it in several contexts. Only when the pattern was
detected did people begin to think about studying self- organizing systems on
their own merits."

That pattern was there to be found in studies looking at how our immune
systems "learn throughout our lifetimes, building vocabularies of antibodies
that evolve in response to the threat posed by invading microorganisms." It
was there in research showing how cells in an embryo "self-organize into more
complicated structures." And it was there in Jane Jacobs's descriptions of
cities as organisms, capable of adaptive change from the street level on up.

In the last 10 years, Mr. Johnson observes, self-organizing systems have
increasingly become part of our everyday life: online stores like
have implemented them to track (and anticipate) our tastes, while Web sites
like eBay have adopted them to regulate relationships between buyers and
sellers. He predicts that personal digital television recorders like TiVo and
Replay, which enable people to decide what they want to watch and when they
want to watch it, will eventually lead to the demise of the network TV
programmer; and he argues that in the future, "the entertainment world will
self-organize into clusters of shared interest, created by software that
tracks usage patterns and collates consumer ratings." As for
decentralization's effect on politics, Mr. Johnson points out that the
anti-globalization protest movement (made up of smaller affinity groups
representing specific causes) has already adopted a fragmented, leaderless
form reminiscent of ant colonies.

This book does not convincingly illustrate the magnitude of change Mr. Johnson
attributes to the self- organization principle; he predicts that it will usher
in a revolution "every bit as significant" as the one unleashed by our
harnessing of electricity. But "Emergence" does limn some of its burgeoning
manifestations. And in doing so, it not only makes stimulating reading but
also goads us to appreciate the process whereby the parts often add up to more
than the whole.

Useless hypotheses, etc.:
 consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values

     Everything that can happen has already happened, not just once,
     but an infinite number of times, and will continue to do so forever.
     (Everything that can happen = more than anyone can imagine.)

We won't move into a better future until we debunk religiosity, the most
regressive force now operating in society.

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