"I really knew I wanted to be Adam, because Adam was the first man. Ant I chose because, if there's a nuclear explosion, the ants will survive." These social insect colonies have effectively demonstrated their resilience over million of years not only as a specy but also as a sustainable organization that can inspire a new social contract at a time when we fear social injustice created by new technologies.
All organizations rely on division of labor to optimize resources for survival or the greater good of societies. In human organizations, roles are usually allocated from the top by leaders, engineers, or other traditional gurus. Could decentralized information be the key to flexible organizations cheaper to operate? Are social media, which offers instantaneous information sharing, a step towards the ultimate disruption and transformation of our society? How should individuals decide what to do to succeed in our fast changing world? Well, clues to start answering these questions emerge from the study of social insects like ants.
10,000 years ago, humans gave up their life as hunter-gatherers to become farmers. For the Attini ants from South America, this critical agricultural revolution took place at the end of the dinosaur age, some 65 million years ago, when they began farming fungus “to produce edible proteins, lipids [fats] and carbohydrates through decomposition.” In both cases, converting to farming was not immediately successful. It required further evolutions on two fronts: technology and organization, state a research in Nature Communications.
For the ants, the technological success was the domestication of fungus species that were metabolically more efficient to digest and immune from gene exchange with the wild. In parallel, ants developed “complex societies with industrial-scale farming,” able to react quickly to environmental changes (e.g. availability of fresh leaves or other organic material, the fuel to grow fungus) and resist to adverse events (e.g. wars).
There are different types of social insect organization, says a study published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. One model relies on specialization of role based on age or morphology. For instance, largest ants with augmented mandibles cut the green leaves, while the mid-sized ones transport them back to the nest, and the smaller workers harvest the fungus. Similarly, older ants have better knowledge of the nest surroundings and specialize in finding food supply. To meet the social insect colony need, the exact type and number of ants must be produced given the external conditions, factoring in breeding latency and mortality rate. Such systems are generally efficient in stable habitat but suffer from a lack of reactivity in more volatile environments.
In contrast, the key to flexible organizations is decentralization, with individual members monitoring the colony welfare and switching task upon the occurrence of certain stimuli such as nest temperature or chemical secretion (pheromone). Some systems are based on local need, i.e. inactive ant workers (the "Lazy Ants," just the opposite of the Aesop La Fontaine fables) wander and engage in tasks only when stumbling upon the stimuli. In other systems, each worker is subject to the same stimuli but act differently based on their respective response thresholds. Such threshold can be set genetically or during larva development, possibly changing with age. The key to flexible organizations is to produce, gather and interpret information without incurring prohibitive costs, measured by the time and energy (i.e. food in the case of ants) consumed by the workers.
However, the ability of individual members to process decentralized information helps the colony to be smarter about its environment, enhancing its decision making. One example described in the Newscientist is the process by which ants select their home. The more satisfied an ant is with a possible location for a nest, the more time it spends secreting pheromone in it. And the more chemicals, the more likely other ants will join to form the nest. Here again, the various response thresholds play a role. Ants with the lower response thresholds seed the majority that will accept the new location, while the "lazy ants" with the higher response thresholds will continue to scout for a better place, providing evidence of individual behaviors for the greater good of societies.
Similarly, when a worker finds food, the ant brings back a piece of it to the nest, leaving behind a trail of pheromone for other ants to follow it back to the food source, says another research published in PNAS. Other scouting ants will likely do the same, resulting in lots of pheromone trails more or less efficient. However, the shorter the trail, the stronger the chemical, prompting more ants to take the shortest way, in turn reinforcing the scent and quickly establishing the optimized route to the food source. This sorting of the most relevant information is very fast and more reliable than most of our internet search engines. Emulating such optimization process is the next challenge for human organizations and the social media industry.
Many industries are embracing today the challenge of managing decentralized infomation enabled by social network technology. Collecting information from smartphones, social media or other data mining can be the key to flexible organizations and help predict future events or solve optimization problems. It can be as simple as reducing congestion in airports, like at Narita Airport near Tokyo. Not prepared for days of need, immigration counters were insufficient to absorb the increase in foreign visitors, resulting in long waiting times. Continuous decentralized information sharing about the number of non-Japanese passengers en route for Narita was introduced in January 2015 between airlines, airport operator and the Ministry of Justice. This allowed operational flexibility and bottom-up decision-making regarding the number of counter to open upon passenger arrival, cutting wait times in half.
Another original application reported by Science Advances is the detection of large earthquakes via the GPS included in smartphones and prepare for days of need. If a sufficient number of phones located in the same sector reports at the same time a same displacement of at least 5 centimeters in the same direction, this would indicate the occurrence of an earthquake of magnitude 7. Per simulation performed in California, less than 5,000 phones would be needed to detect such seismic wave in just 5 seconds, quickly enough to launch an alert to nearby large cities and deploy protective measures.
Of course, the increased usage of decentralized information technologies to optimize and automate tasks in human organizations or societies add to the fear of job reduction and social injustice. Looking again at social insects where 50 to 70% of workers are inactive (the "Lazy Ants") provides surprising perspectives. Keeping a spare number of lazy ants may save energy while remaining ready for peak workload, including war or new colony settlements. The key to flexible organizations may depend on the right balance of response threshold in ants to stimuli created by the conditions surrounding the social insect colonies.
If human societies continue to emulate ant organizations millions-of-years later like they did when adopting farming, the next challenge to prevent social injustice created by new technologies while gaining further efficiency and improve sustainability will be the establishment of a new social contract. One that will provide a welfare systems to support inactive workers (i.e. the "Lazy Ants") in exchange for call of duty upon the occurrence of common purposes . Hopefully such calls will not be for wars, but for more peaceful endeavors like opening human settlements on Mars or in a galaxy far, far away....
“Ants give us a useful model of how single members of a community can become so organized that they end up resembling one big collective brain. Our own exploding population and communication technology are leading us that way" Lewis Thomas
All visuals were selected, edited, animated and colored by SpareTag.com to form the following sequences for our original 90-second video:
When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for days of need https://t.co/mssVYIds4F @Sparetag pic.twitter.com/hxFhLMsJnZ— Spare Tag (@SpareTag) November 26, 2017
— Spare Tag (@SpareTag)
Z is an unhappy ant in a social insect
colony of millions. While
he doesn't mind being an
ant, he does mind the
humdrum life among
active and lazy ants.
He trades places with a
soldier friend and prepares for days of need. Things get out of hand when he finds himself headed to a Termite War, and succeeds in becoming a hero overnight. Like in the old Aesop La Fontaine fables, the story creates fun ant communications among the social insects and a inspiring new social contract.
"Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television"Lewis Thomas
Social insects like ants have long been using decentralized information technologies to gain organizational flexibility for the sustainability and greater good of their colonies. As social media are emerging in our own societies, we can learn the best practices from ants to preserve our diversity, individuality and social cohesion.
"If ants are such busy workers, how come they find time to go to all the picnics?"
'Why bother about winter?'
said the Grasshopper.
When the winter came the
Grasshopper had no food
and found itself dying of
hunger - while it saw the
ants distributing every day
corn and grain from the
stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for days of need.
Aesop La Fontaine fables relentlessly articulate the ideas of a new social contract for society by staging ants communications among social insects or other animals.