First you act, then you know. – Coert Visser

We make the path by walking. Not so much by talking about it. And herein lies one of the major pitfalls of human decision making: we gather into groups of talking heads and hash out ideas. Then we vote or use some other abstraction-based process to narrow the choices, and hope that this will lead us in the right direction. But it is often a real struggle to get anywhere, and the results? Lackluster.

Social insects do it differently. They use a process called quorum sensing. What happens when ants need to move their home after a crack in the ground, or bees need to choose their new hive after swarming? Scouts go out looking for likely sites, laying down pheromone trails in areas that seem promising. Then they go back and communicate their excitement to their nest sibs. But not just any old way: excited ants are quicker to communicate and excited bees dance longer directional dances. Then other scouts go out, lay down more pheromones (thus highlighting the more popular trails), return and communicate. More and more scouts come to the most the promising sites and report back. At some point, the community senses a quorum, and the ants or bees move en masse. Much of the time (90% or so!), they pick out the best possible site through following this simple pattern that does not require either leaders or top-down oversight; freely undertaken, non-managed choices of unsophisticated agents add up to a very intelligent decision. But it’s not just insects… fish do it, wildebeest do it, and so do dolphins.

This day in French Polynesia, a group of about 25 spinner dolphins is sleeping behind the barrier reef protecting Moorea’s lagoon from the open sea. Like all dolphins, they remain conscious during sleep, resting only the hearing parts of their brains while relying on their sight to identify predators. In this state, they move as stealthily as ghosts, surfacing quietly, breathing low. But by the late afternoon the school begins to awaken and the dolphins pick up speed, with individuals bursting through the surface to perform the dramatic aerial leaps and spins for which the species is named.

Then almost as quickly as they awoke, the dolphins slow down again. The spinners have entered the phase of their day Norris and colleagues dubbed “zigzag swimming,” with the group oscillating between sleep and wakefulness, as some individuals wish to awaken and others wish to lounge abed in the lagoon a while longer. [Impending is the group’s choice to go feed in the open sea.] It’s no easy decision. At stake are their lives. By leaving the lagoon the spinners face real danger. To catch fish they must venture offshore and dive alone or in mother-calf pairs to depths of 1,000 feet or more in the nighttime sea. They will be hunting alongside many larger predators, including sharks hunting them.

Underwater, the split in intentions is … obvious. When the group is persuaded to sleep, the dolphins fall silent. When the group is urged to awaken, the sea explodes with the whistles, clicks, quacks, moos, baahs, barks, and squawks of their varied calls. In short order, these sounds are accompanied by an artillery barrage of dull booms and hissing bubble trains: the percussion of belly flops and back flops at the surface. Like howling wolves and cawing crows the spinners are consolidating their intentions, using zigzag swimming to cast and recast their votes until consensus is reached [or, more likely, until a quorum is sensed].

Quorum sensing has fascinating applications in computing and in medicine. For example, it is pointing a way out of the impasse created by antibiotics. The “massacre them all” approach only breeds nastier, more resistant superbacteria. Disruption of bacterial quorum sensing simply slows down the foe and gives the body’s immune system more time to use normal defense mechanisms to deal with the invader.

What exactly are the key components of ant and bee quorum sensing? I have gathered as many as I could find.

  • individual initiative in going out and evaluating (freedom, randomness)
  • a considerable variety of possible solutions is examined
  • each individual is aware of a variety of criteria for evaluating the sites (which may differ from individual to individual somewhat)
  • individual actions lay down pheromone markers upon which the next-comers build; pheromone trails grow stronger as more ants come to investigate
  • each individual signals to others (direction, qualities of the site, enthusiasm)
  • each scouts communicates their information and enthusiasm in full, then “shuts up” and new scouts coming in continue the process; individual ants build onto what others had done before them
  • a threshold or quorum is recognized by all (some means for assessing the numbers involved is needed)
  • when quorum is reached, a commonly-understood response follows
  • there is no leader in this process (it’s self-organized and decentralized)
  • the critters do not aim for clarity in what they communicate; if they are confused or unenthusiastic, they convey that… the clarity will emerge in time from their combined efforts

Rules of thumb: take action, explore; do what you understand as best; leave a marker or sign; communicate your enthusiasm; know a quorum when you see one. Diversity of options and free competition among them lead to a superior solution.

Quorum sensing is one pattern of swarm intelligence. There are others yet simpler; for example, sometimes communicating with others is not even necessary. Interacting with the environment and leaving signals for others to act upon is enough (think Wikipedia). I am but nicking the surface, hoping to leave some scratch marks for others to follow.

Useful search terms:
Swarm intelligence
Swarm theory
Smart mob
Collective intelligence
Stigmergy [sign + work]
Group genius
Emergent swarm
Signaling [or signalling]
Wisdom of the crowd
Co-swarming

Readings (the most glowing reviews on Amazon are for Seeley’s book):
Thomas Seeley: Honeybee Democracy
James Surowiecki: Wisdom of Crowds
Peter Miller: The Smart Swarm
Alex Pentland: Honest Signals


Well then. How may all this apply to human groups? I don’t know yet, but I have a bee in my bonnet. A swarm of insights has descended upon me that I am abuzz to share. So please bear with me as I dole out the honey. (Help… where is that anti-venom?)

Truth to tell, I was struck speechless by the realization that these ants are freer than us humans. (Ants?! 😮 Ouch.) They are free to go out and act as they see fit, free to explore any option they find interesting, and to tell about it to the group. And they are free to wait until a deep sense of rightness emerges that propels the entire nest to action. Unlike humans, they are never faced with a contrived decision to obey.

I do not like being forced to go along with group decisions that go counter to my own deep sense anymore than I like green eggs and ham. Sitting in meetings imposing decisions on each other, with people expected to fall into line once the decision is hammered out… is that really what we want, or is it something we have put up with for way too long? Instead of an OODA loop, we have the hum-drum reality of OODO: observe-orient-decide-obey. Given the underlying expectation of having to toe the line, no wonder humans find group decision making unpleasant, anxiety-producing, manipulative, and full of miserable compromises.

I want what the ants have! (Did I actually say that?) I want to be able to listen with care what others have to say and to observe their actions. Then I want to be able to act within freedom, in my own turn. Isn’t that where true dignity lies? I have a new personal manifesto: the loyalty that I owe to the group does not consist of obeying its rules. It consists of opening up to the information flowing my way, allowing it to change me, then acting in freedom as I best see fit.

Then, get this: the ants actually do stuff! Wha? They do not sit around debating things in the abstract?! Their eventual smart choices emerge out of iterative cycles of doings. They throw themselves into an exuberant exploration of possibilities. Just think about it. Don’t we only find out about real decisions by doing in the human world as well? People talk and think and imagine – but making final decisions out of this material makes little sense. Only when the decision is embodied and acted out, it becomes the sort of decision you can hang your hat on. The rest are just dreams, wishes and other ephemera. True-blue resolve must be embodied rather than just thunk.

When I stayed at Earthaven, there was in place a sturdy consensus, hammered out in meetings and supported by the eco-village culture, regarding care for the land. But when several young people clear-cut a whole section of the forest, leaving not a tree or bush standing, and what’s worse, leaving the banks of the adjacent creek bare and vulnerable to run-off, that consensus proved false in the face of the contingencies of debt and the need to get the most yield out of the area (intended for a pasture flanked by fruit trees). And this in the face of a state law specifying creek bank protection! The community looked the other way while the young men mowed down those woods. Theoretical agreements carry very little weight when the chips are flying.

It is not enough to discuss ideas and then choose one of them. If the doings of each individual are the material from which an intelligent decision of the group emerges, then people must be free to do. Theoretical agreement does NOT tell us what people will want to do once the chips are down, and actions are required. It does NOT tell us what people will do when they have to apply their ideas in the real world, and real world feedback kicks in. It does NOT tell us what people will do once they get out of that armchair, and their cherished ideas turn difficult in practice, or have unforeseen consequences, or just plain feel disagreeable when realized. It does NOT tell us what we will pick when all our faculties are engaged, not only the rational. There is a great variety of things that are agreeable to think… but not agreeable to do.

Emergent decision making has a number of advantages listed in the literature as robustness, flexibility, low-energy, decentralization and self-organization. But it occurs to me that there are others: emergent decision making is honest; a group or company can create phony “paper decisions” that sound good but merely mask the actual reality within, but people aware of emergent decisions will look beyond such facades. Second, emergent choice does not lend itself to be sabotaged by top-down leadership because it “happens on its own” and any tinkering turns it into something else. And the freedom of each agent to act as they see fit subverts tendencies to groupthink. “Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won’t be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Emergent decision making leads to novel, creative, unpredictable results. There is no trauma so often attendant contrived decisions, which makes it possible to revisit the issues as often as necessary. And finally, emergent, embodied choices are highly persuasive where mere ideas are not: research has shown that people are more apt to imitate behaviors they have seen several other people do already. There is quorum sensing somewhere in there…

Have you heard of the Estonian country-wide clean up party? The elements are all there: autonomous signaling, visible mapping of the signals, and finally the emergent quorum that brought 50,000 people out to clean up all the illegal garbage dumps and piles that had accumulated throughout the countryside. In one day. Nearly 4% of the entire population showed up. Bloody amazing.

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