Simple rules lead to complex collectives


How individual insects, birds or people coordinate their actions has been a tricky problem that has captivated some scientists for a long time.  It’s also a problem of great interest to Collaborating Minds, as we try to turn our diverse members into a coordinated group.

About 25 years ago, Craig Reynolds used a simple set of rules to create animation simulation software called “Boids”   to  illustrate the emergent behavior of flocking.  Individual birds don’t think about the flock yet their decisions ripple and the flocking behavior emerges, and it was these rules that Reynolds demonstrated to everyone’s surprise.  Scientists too are finding that much collective behavior works like those “Boids” simulation.

Iain Couzin borrowed from this approach to observe and study  swarming behavior  in locusts and golden shiners–small, unintelligent fish.  He set out  to understand  a series of questions.  How collectives form?  What they, the collective, can accomplish? And what abilities do they gain? He confirmed that simple, small rules, when replicated by individuals  lead to collective behavior.  His lab work  isn’t merely simulated but does benefit from meticulous observation and high definition cameras that parallel covert tracking of human activity online.  His detailed observations of collective and even community building behavior provide insights that naturally extend to human behavior in both the physical and digital environment.

Couzin’s remarkable work on collective behavior and exhibited collaboration  has been written up in Wired and can be heard in his interviews on the BBC.

The lessons for Collaborating Minds

In creating software, Collaborating Minds began with our own set of simple rules and  structures, and elected to build with the expectation of coordinated behavior emerging. Our fundamental small rules for member behavior that we are testing include:

  1. Ask for help and accept help — we expect these actions will lead to the emergence of a community around shared values
  2. Do a small bit on each part of a problem  — each person’s small contribution will add up to much more — and prod unpredictable responses unavailable to individuals responding in isolation.
  3. Pay attention to what is going on, and make suggestions  to improve what we are doing.  We imagine this to work like the Japanese kaizen, or team knowledge sharing process, in which tiny steps will yield great and positive changes.

Members actions on each of these steps  and their interactions with one or two other people, is a good thing. Acting on them with a larger group, and eventually a few hundred, we envision will create a “phase change”  similar to what has been observed by Couzins in his insect, fish and bird examples.

Something new will emerge. Will the activities result in creative solutions to complex problems and a strong community? We built the system because we  believe they will.

If collaboration represents value that exceeds the sum of its parts, then there must be a collective ability that’s only possible to realize in collective.  That’s what Collaborating Minds believes, and we will be tracking Couzin’s style  in hope that our beta will demonstrate how small actions following simple rules can lead to great collective behavior and results.

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One Response to Simple rules lead to complex collectives

  1. Jay Albrecht,. PhD January 19, 2016 at 9:25 pm #

    In watching a large flock of migrating birds, I’m intrigued by their ability to wheel and swirl in unison without bumping into each other…compare this to hurrying Yorkers in Times Square
    who require cops, traffic signals and fleetg feet to avoid ech other (mnostly).

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