“Resistance is futile,” warn the Borg in Star Trek, in one of the most famous lines in television history. The Borg are one of the best known examples of the science fiction trope of a “hive mind,” i.e., a group of individuals that share their consciousness to act as a single being. The cost, of course, is separate thoughts and personality. Hive minds are almost uniformly portrayed as bad in science fiction, or at least as something that humans, with our self-centered minds, will never be able to understand. But perhaps this is because we’re looking at hive minds the wrong way.
Star Trek’s Borg are composed of many individuals of many different alien species, forcibly assimilated by an injection of nanomachines that allow them to link telepathically to the collective consciousness of the hive. Once linked, these individuals act as ‘drones,’ serving the Borg as a whole rather than their own interests. While initially the Borg were leaderless, later episodes have them ruled by one or several ‘queens.’ The words hive, drone, and queen are, of course, nods to insects like ants and bees which live in eusocial societies. ‘Eusocial’ refers to a type of social group found in nature where there is a single breeding individual or breeding pair helped by a large number of nonreproductive adults.
Sci-fi flicks like Them!, Phase IV, and Empire of the Ants more directly stoked audiences' fears of a mindless horde of insects, united against humanity by a single purpose. In many cases, the assimilated mob in these Cold War-era movies is a not-so-subtle allegory for communism, especially as the antagonists are often superpowered by contact with radioactive waste. As with the Borg, these fictional insect societies are again ruled by a single queen, and the society collapses when she is destroyed. But the loss of individuality (to communism, natch) and the total subjugation to a single ruler depicted in these fictional representations of hive minds are actually the complete opposite of how eusocial insects work in real life.
First, we must debunk the concept of the queen as a ruler. In real life, eusocial groups typically contain a single breeding female, and the remaining non-reproducing adults may be her offspring, her mates, or her siblings. Contrary to popular belief, however, these queens do not control the decision-making of the swarm. In fact, no single ant or bee is responsible for the behavior of the collective. Instead, swarms of animals form what’s referred to as a superorganism that uses something very much like democracy to make group decisions.
It’s understandable why the writers of Star Trek made a queen the face of the Borg; it’s much easier for us humans to loathe a villain if it has a single face for us to focus on. Likewise, it’s much easier for us to believe that ants and bees are obeying the orders of a queen rather than popular opinion. Democracy for insects—how would that even work? Are ants and bees setting up tiny polling stations and casting votes?
Obviously, they're not. Decisions in eusocial groups are made very quickly, in a matter of seconds: the swarm works together to move an obstacle, build a bridge, or attack an enemy. Similar instantaneous behavior is found in leaderless herds of wildebeest, huge flocks of starlings, and schools of sardines when they swerve to avoid predators and search for food.
To understand how leaderless swarms can quickly make choices, scientists often turn to computer models of ant behavior. Mathematical biologist Dr. Iain Couzin built simulated ants that were programmed with a few 'rules' — for example, follow a pheromone trail while putting down your own, bring food back to the nest when you find it, and don’t run into anybody else. The simulated ants were able to model army ant behavior almost flawlessly. Ants as a collective are able to solve much more complex problems than any single ant could, simply because they have a way to rapidly share information with one another through signals like pheromones.
Humans can demonstrate this so-called swarm intelligence as well, even if we don't know it. In a series of experiments conducted by Dr. Couzin and researchers at the University of Leeds, human participants were given their own ‘rules’ on slips of paper that they weren’t allowed to show anybody else. The simplest experiments had rules for individuals to stay with the group, resulting in a huddle. But when researchers added directions to a few of the people to move towards objects on one side of the room or the other, you might think that the swarm would split apart. Instead, without discussing it, the group moved in the direction that the majority of those with extra directions wanted to move in.
Obviously, not every group interaction in animals and humans results in swarm intelligence. The results of online polls, for example, tend to show a snowballing or herding effect, where individuals vote in similar ways as those before them, regardless of how right they were. True swarm intelligence occurs when the group makes a rapid decision in real time as a collective. As a means of testing this, programmers at Unanimous A.I. created a program called UNUM which uses software to mimic the conditions of a real swarm. Human users each have a virtual “magnet” used to push around a puck towards one of several answers. Because no single user can control the puck by themselves, the group has to work together to pick an answer. In these conditions, the participants were able to answer predictive questions such as “Which movie will win the Oscar for Best Picture this year?” with greater accuracy than when they were polled separately.
As a species, most—perhaps all—of humanity's great successes comes from our ability to share information with one another. Right now, you are reading this article on a computer or mobile device that was the product of hundreds of inventors who piggybacked their ideas on one another, from the person who invented the LCD screen to the one who first harnessed electricity. A hive mind isn’t so scary if you think of it that way. Rather than suppressing the individual à la the Borg, the different individuals with diverse knowledge that comprise the hive are what make it so powerful.
[via The New York Times]
Featured still from "Star Trek" via Paramount Pictures; Additional photo of Bees: Luca Terzaroli / Flickr