Learning from Ants: Intelligent Swarms in Many Settings

Our question is: How many pioneer missionary teams do we need to serve the unreached of the world, to help find and raise up the local evangelists who can complete the task? If we assume any given missionary team can mentor a local church planting movement that will impact at least 100,000 people over the space of a decade, then we arrive at a simple number: forty-three thousand teams. (To see how we came to this number, click here.)

So, then, how can we recruit and send that many teams? In July, we talked about skyscrapers. In August, we talked about pyramids. This month, we are going to talk about ants.

Ants are one of the most
successful groups of insects
in the animal kingdom. 

An Overview of Ants
In Southeast Asia where we live, we have a whole little ecosystem around our house: birds, spiders, lizards, cockroaches and a bat. We even have the occasional frog and snail. But most interesting to me are the ants. I have seen three basic varieties: tiny and swift; medium and clever; and big and strong. They are pretty amazing creatures.

A few months ago something killed a lizard, a medium-sized gecko, in our driveway. We saw the small corpse in the morning, but left it there while we went out to run errands. By the time we got home, the ants were already swarming. Fascinated, I decided to leave the lizard and see what the ants did. By early evening, those tiny, tiny ants completely stripped the lizard clean. Only the bones were left.

More recently, we discovered a mouse in our house. I have been trying to catch it with a mouse trap. I put the trap outside with some cheese on it. A few hours later, I noticed the medium and big-size ants had begun to swarm the trap and were carrying off little bits of cheese. When I checked the trap that night before going to bed, the cheese was gone. The ants had carried it off, one tiny piece at a time.

Ants are one of the most successful groups of insects in the animal kingdom. They are highly social and form very organized colonies and nests. Sometimes, these colonies can have up to one million individual ants. They have colonized almost every landmass on earth and make up nearly fifteen percent of the total animal weight of any given tropical rainforest. Scientists have estimated the weight of all ants exceeds the weight of all humans. Each individual ant is born from an egg. If the egg is fertilized, the ant is a female; if not, it will be male. (Worker ants are always females.) Ants pass through larval and pupal stages before they become adults. A female might be a worker or a queen. A new worker spends its first few days caring for the queen and young ants. After that, it moves up to digging and nest work, and finally to foraging and the defense of the nest.

Only male ants (called drones) and breeding females have wings. They do nothing in life except eat until it is time to mate. When it is time to mate, they move outside and fly off. They mate in the air, and the male dies shortly thereafter. The female stores the sperm of the male, which she will use to fertilize future eggs. Then she lands and finds a place to start a new colony. She breaks off her wings (she will never fly again) and begins laying eggs (which she will do every day for the rest of her life). Some queen ants can live up to fifteen years. Depending on the type of ant, a queen can produce up to 1,500 eggs per day every day. Some colonies (such as Fire Ants) can have multiple queens—as many as one hundred. Ants can spread very quickly: a mature colony can produce over four thousand reproductive breeders during the year. Nearly 100,000 queen ants can be produced per acre in heavily populated land.

Ants communicate by means of scent pheromones they leave on the ground as they travel. For example, when an ant finds a food source it will return to the colony, dropping a food scent along the trail. Other ants will follow this trail, dropping their own food scents along the way. This is how ants can rapidly swarm something (like a dead lizard). As more and more ants follow the trail, each dropping a scent, the trail gets stronger and stronger—like a neon sign. Finally, when the ants have carted all the food away, they will stop going and the “scent” will eventually fade. Likewise, if an ant is killed, its crushed body will give off an “alarm scent.” This scent sends nearby ants into a frenzy, ready to respond to whatever invading bug is nearby, while also serving to attract distant ants to the “scene of the battle.”

What wisdom can we learn from an ant, other than the admonition to not be lazy?

With an incredible reproductive rate and simple standards for workers, ant colonies can easily take over an area. Sometimes, individual colonies join together to form huge “super-colonies.” Until 2002, the largest known ant colony was on the Ishikari cost of Hokkaido, Japan: it has 300 million worker ants, one million queens and forty-five thousand interconnected nests in an area measuring about three square kilometers.

In 2002, however, another super-colony was found in Melbourne, Australia, that measured approximately one hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles) wide. These ants originally came from Argentina; there, they were highly aggressive toward each other and their “civil wars” kept their populations low. But when the Argentinian ants migrated to Australia (probably aboard container ships), something changed in their behavior. They stopped fighting with each other and instead began working together. Now they are taking over the Australian environment!

The industry of ants has always been well known. Proverbs 6 says, “Go to the ant, you sluggard. Consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” Proverbs 30:25 calls ants one of four “extremely wise” creatures: “Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer.”

Swarm Intelligence
But ants are ants. They are insects—bugs! Compared to us, they have next to no brains. What wisdom can we learn from an ant, other than the admonition to not be lazy? How can a swarm of unintelligent creatures be intelligent?

In fact, an ant swarm has a collective intelligence that can be highly suited to some forms of problem solving—and their “ways” have an enormous amount of wisdom for us. There is actually a study of this wisdom called “swarm intelligence.” Swarm intelligence is the study of the “collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems.” The term was created in 1989 by scientists. It describes systems—like ant colonies—that are made up of simple agents or creatures that interact with each other and their environment.

Swarm intelligence has been applied to everything from computer programming and medical research to cement distribution and military operations (some examples later). Search online book retailer Amazon.com for “swarm intelligence” and you will find 438 books on the subject. Most are in the “Professional & Technical,” “Science” and “Computers” categories.

Characteristics of an Intelligent Swarm
So what exactly does an intelligent swarm do?

  • Amazingly, a swarm operates without any centralized control. No single ant rules the colony or tells all the other ants what to do. (All the queen ant does is lay eggs.)
  • Swarms cannot see the whole of their environment. Ants do not have big-picture maps. When they first move into an area, they do not know where the food or predators are. Ants know as little about the area around them as we humans know about the spiritual world around us. However, an ant can see things in its immediate presence, and the ant can tell other ants some basic pieces of information about its environment (like “follow this trail to food” or “there is danger here”). They can build up a dynamic, real-time map of the environment very quickly (call this an ant’s version of spiritual mapping).
  • Swarms can change their environment. They can dig tunnels, shift sand, build up structures and adapt the land for their own use. They can build communities that are miles long—ant-like subways, apartments and 7-Elevens.
  • Swarms capitalize on randomness. It may seem like a mistake for an ant to go off wandering and not find any food. But this is their form of spontaneous creativity: a random action can open up new possibilities. It increases the chances that they will find something. They are not bound to a central plan that might fail in the face of an unforeseen problem.
  • Swarms are very flexible. They can adapt to changing situations. Ants can cooperate to carry off large items and sort them. If they encounter more food, they can build extensions on their nest to store it. If there are too many predators in an area, they can migrate.
  • Ant swarms endure. Worker ants protect the hive, and in some cases swarming ants can kill creatures far larger than themselves.

Decentralized control is perhaps the biggest asset of a swarm. It is possible because each individual agent (each ant) rapidly examines its environment, and then acts with the colony’s goals in mind. Ants explore until they find a food source, and then immediately march back to the nest. Other ant explorers come across the scent trail and immediately follow it. There is no red tape to cut, no bureaucratic permission to get, no requests to file in triplicate. No leader is passing commands or sending out signals. This gives a swarm its ability to endure. You cannot kill the leader and disperse the swarm, because there is no leader to kill.

Unfortunately, decentralization is a big paradigm shift for humans. In a swarm, solutions emerge out of the tiny actions of millions of participants (the ants), not directed from a central headquarters. This makes an ant (or any other swarm system) incredibly adaptive to events on the ground, but largely uncontrollable. And, as one swarm theoretician says, “Many managers would rather live with a problem they can’t solve than with a solution they don’t fully understand or control.”

Yet, decentralization works for us too. It is actually active in many things we use on a daily basis. One example is a relatively recent piece of Internet software that has taken the world’s phone calls by storm.

Skype is a piece of software that runs on a computer and enables voice calls—like telephone calls—over the Internet. Someone who has Skype can either call someone else who has Skype installed or—for a small fee—can call a regular telephone number. Skype supports video calling, conference calling and instant messaging. All are highly encrypted. Skype is available in twenty-seven languages and is used by four million people in virtually every country around the world.

The program was created in 2003 by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. The two were originally involved in the creation of Kazaa, an illegal peer-to-peer file sharing system. Skype, on the other hand, is completely legitimate and was recently acquired by eBay for US$2.6 billion.

What does Skype have to do with swarms? Like Kazaa, Skype is a peer-to-peer application. It uses the same basic idea that ants use to find food.

So what does Skype have to do with swarms? Like Kazaa, Skype is a peer-to-peer application. It uses the same basic idea that ants use to find food. It does not use one centralized computer server. Instead, peer-to-peer software uses all the computers in a network (each individual computer running Skype) to dynamically process traffic.

When a phone call is made over Skype, your voice is nearly instantly recorded by the computer and broken into little electronic packets. These are sent hurtling at light-speed over the Internet, hopping from computer to computer until they reach the computer of the person you are calling. The packets do not always use the same path, although they are encrypted from end to end. The first packets that go through find the quickest route. Later packets follow this “quick route.” The result: crystal-clear, high-quality phone calls. For free. With no central server to be hacked, debugged or monitored. But Skype’s not the only example. There is a far more radical one.

The VISA credit card is an example of
“swarm intelligence.”

The VISA Credit Card
As you read this, you may have a small card in your pocket that will take you “everywhere you want to be.” A similar card is in the wallets of at least 600 million other people. All you probably know about the card is that it comes from your bank, your airline, your favorite store or some club you are involved with. When you need to pay a bill, you present the card and the bill is counted paid. Once a month, you get a notice of how many charges you have made, and you get to pay all or part of them. The card, of course, is the VISA credit card. But have you stopped to ponder how VISA works?

A short background: VISA was founded in part by Dee Hock, a very unorthodox philosophical thinker and business manager. In 1966, the Bank of America launched a credit card program: the Bank Americard. A franchise for this card was bought by a bank that Hock worked in. He became the manager of the bank’s credit card program, and when the program—and the whole of Bank Americard—began having problems, he was nominated to a small committee to help fix some of the problems. Those problems proved insurmountable without completely redesigning the program.

The committee came to several conclusions about money, which led to a completely new paradigm for the little plastic card. It was not about the exchange of credit; rather, it was about the exchange of value. Hock has written, “An organization that could globally guarantee and transfer monetary information in the form of arranged electronic information would have a market, every exchange of value in the world, that beggared the imagination.” There was only one problem: no existing organization of any type (bank, stock corporation, nation-state) could do this.

A small group of four people isolated themselves for several days of intense discussion. Out of this came the idea of two kinds of institutions: one where the members share certain principles and values, and the other which is governed. Slowly, the founders identified a “genetic code”—a statement of shared purposes and principles. These included:

  • The organization should be fairly owned by all the participants.
  • No function which could more reasonably be done by a more peripheral, field-based member should be performed by any more central member.
  • No power should be given to anyone that might be reasonably exercised by a lesser participant.
  • All participants have the right to organize for self-governance at any time, for any reason, at any scale, with irrevocable rights of participation.
  • It should be open to all qualified participants.
  • It should induce, not compel, change. As much as possible, everything should be voluntary.
  • No individual, institution or combination of either should be able to dominate or control deliberations or decisions.
  • All participants are free to compete in diverse, unique and independent ways, yet be linked to sense the demands of others and cooperate when necessary for the inseparable good of the whole.
  • It should be capable of constant, self-generated change of form and function without sacrificing its essential purpose, thus enabling human creativity.

Hock and his friends did not think such an organization could be created—but it was. In June 1970, VISA was launched. It started with a handful of banks, but today is equitably owned by over twenty thousand financial institutions in 220 countries. VISA has no shareholders. It has no central owning company. Ownership is in the form of perpetual, non-transferable rights of participation; “VISA cannot be bought, raided, traded or sold.” Over 600 million people use VISA products at more than twelve million merchant locations, producing over US$2 trillion worth of business annually. Its products are the most universally used and recognized in the world, yet the organization is so transparent that its customers, most of its affiliates and many of its members do not know it exists or how it functions. VISA is a swarm.

Can we create a missionary swarm? We will look at that question next month.

Justin Long manages strategicnetwork.org and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].