When individual units combine to form complicated, intelligent structures with well-coordinated divisions of labor, command hierarchies, and problem-solving skills — that’s a swarm. More than just strength in numbers, the swarm is an emergent property: the whole can achieve what the parts alone cannot; but paradoxically, without the parts the whole does not exist. A nest of wasps. The antibodies in our immune system. Data moving through a network. WTO protesters in Seattle. This is why swarm theory is resonating these days throughout many disciplines, from biology to computer science to politics. The superorganism potential seems to exist everywhere. Here are some examples:
1. Autonomous NanoTechnology Robots. Soon, many tiny robots may go to Mars. A whole lot of nanobots — part of NASA’s Autonomous NanoTechnology Swarms, or ANTS project — were shipped to McMurdo Station in Antarctica for testing in harsh climates. Eventually, the miniaturized robots will unite into one giant mass. That mass will be able to alter shape — Wonder Twin powers, Activate! — and form a shield, say, when entering a planet’s atmosphere, then shift into snake mode to slither away on rocky terrain upon landing. When ANTS discovers something interesting, it can grow an antenna and transmit data back to Earth. If a meteor punctures a hole in the swarm, it will heal itself by rejoining the undamaged parts. The tiny robots will revolutionize space travel, or, if the implications of the Star Trek oeuvre are to be believed, obliterate life as we know it.
2. Killer Bees. Still swarming with gusto, Apis mellifera adansonii, also called “Africanized” honeybees, were created in 1956 when scientists in Brazil imported colonies of studly African bees for crossbreeding experiments. The downside: 26 African queens escaped to produce aggressive hybrid hives in the wild with drones that are cantankerous, attack in greater numbers, sting 10 times more, and give chase for longer distances. Ground zero was Brazil, where the bees allegedly killed 1,000 people before they started spreading. By 1990, they breached Texas, then Arizona, then California. The upside to angry bees — more coffee: A recent study by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute discovered coffee plants in Mexico pollinated by Africanized bees saw 50 percent yield increases. Where was adansonii in 2005 when California’s almond orchards suffered a silent spring from a bee shortage? Note to bees: Quit terrorizing old ladies in Riverside and head to the San Joaquin Valley. We need more avocados.
3. Locusts. A.k.a. spam from God. Traditionally a plague upon Egypt, locusts are currently prophesying doom Down Under. “Let my people go that they may serve me” said the Lord, in Exodus 8:20-21. “If you do not .?.?. behold, I will send swarms of flies on you, and on your servants and into your houses.” Australia’s Department of Primary Industries says that, this year, baby locusts have hatched at 470 sites across the state of Victoria. Normally, locusts are shy, solitary insects. But when one locust brushes against another’s touch-sensitive hind-leg hairs (i.e., the locust G-spot), they switch from solitary behavior to gregarious. Next comes the swarming, the devastating cloud, the menacing of crops, the death of the firstborn, the day dark as night. Did I mention that the G-spot was discovered by researchers tickling locust legs with paintbrushes?
4. Grunions. Every year, the watery critters run onto our shores, squeaking merrily and spawning as the female digs her tail into the sand and the male spills his milt all over her. And every year, fish-happy picnickers flip them into a bucket and onto the grill. This is wrong! Because grunions are best when rolled in cornmeal, deep-fried in olive oil, and sprinkled with a touch of lemon. (Mmm!) This year, grunions were at the center of the never-ending war between wealthy, waterfront homeowners and the California Coastal Commission. But don’t fuck with the CCC: The Malibu homeowners who bulldozed sand into a wall meant to keep “riffraff” off their property also disrupted the grunions’ spawning grounds and were promptly sued.
5. Bats. Each night, 2 million free-tailed bats exit the Gua Payau Cave in Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park, writhing in a long, sinuous ribbon across the dusk, headed for unknown feeding grounds. The floor of their cave chamber is covered in guano, which seethes with cockroaches and earwigs. Sometimes, an undigested seed in the mess of bat poop germinates and a ghostly plant sprouts amid the decay.
6. Sharks. There always seems to be Shark Summer news packages in Florida, but this year the normal migratory pattern turned swarm when thousands of blacktip sharks suddenly appeared off the coast. The spectacle was especially dramatic because the water was unusually clear and beach patrols reported more shore incursions than ever. But the blacktips get a bad rap: They mostly eat schooling fish, including sardines and anchovies.
7. Ants. Perhaps the most effective swarm of all, an ant swarm eats everything in its path. An ant swarm will fight another ant swarm if it gets in the way, until it’s ant versus ant (versus ant versus ant). If an ant swarm encounters an inedible obstacle in its path, it turns 90 degrees and continues onward. These are the rules of ant swarms, inviolable, eternal and effective enough that a growing community of computer-science researchers is applying ant-like “swarm intelligence” to problems like rerouting network traffic on phone lines, docking ships at busy ports and streamlining factory assembly lines.
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8. Feral Chihuahuas. Remember those 174 wild, cannibal Chihuahuas discovered in an Antelope Valley house by animal control officers a few years ago? They’d taken over the place, burrowing into the walls and furniture and leaving piles of dead chickens and geese in their wake. Originally, the dogs were part of a massive 236-member swarm that had subdivided into packs. Then began the war of attrition, in which the Chihuahuas killed each other off. A judge sentenced the dogs to death, but a Chihuahua rescue group held a candlelight vigil to win the dogs’ freedom, and the animals were released to the custody of Gregory Peck’s ex-daughter-in-law for rehabilitation.
9. The Evildoers. It was still 1991, as the post–Cold War optimists were eagerly awaiting the Pax Americana peace dividend that awaited us at the End of History, when renowned military historian Martin van Creveld’s Transformation of War reconceptualized the future of global conflict as one of states besieged by ideologically driven networks of terrorists with low-tech weapons. “Attacked by swarms of gnats,” he wrote, “all the conventional forces could do was flounder about in helpless fury .?.?. .” His historically informed analysis preternaturally predicted the state of our fight against Iraq’s insurgency. From Rumsfeld’s Baathist “dead-enders” to foreign jihadis to local Shia Islamists and secular Sunni nationalists, the insurgents have little in common beyond their shared goal and decentralized technique. Collectively, the insurgents — whose very number is unknown, with estimates ranging from 30,000 up to 200,000 — comprise a giant, clandestine, heterogeneous swarm with no king to capture. It’s a tactic that’s also strategic: What Bush calls the “Global War on Terror” (and his ideological Svengalis like Eliot Cohen and Norman Podhoretz more directly refer to as World War IV) has been operationally defined as a “global swarm” by John Robb, an expert on next-generation conflict. And it’s successful. On the ground, “open-source net-centric warfare” deprives our troops of their advantages in superior firepower and conventional fighting expertise. Beyond Iraq, the global swarm is a constantly adapting grand social movement that any underground religious group, local militia or disaffected worker can join. That’s why van Creveld, the only non-American on the U.S. Army’s required reading list for officers, recently wrote that Bush’s invasion of Iraq was the biggest military blunder in the past 2,014 years.
10. Zulu Warriors. Alexander the Great reported swarm-like Scythian horse-mounted archers in his campaign for Bactria, but in modern times it was the Zulus who, in the 1880s, perfected the asymmetrical advantage of the swarm when they trained their soldiers to defeat the well-armed Boers and British with just spears and precise planning. The RAND Institute’s 2000 paper on Swarming and the Future of Conflict identifies the tribal Zulus as a prime example of swarm behavior on the battlefield: Small, stealthy, mobile groups equally dispersed against the opposing army, they descended upon weak points in the chain with well-coordinated flashes. That system became the basis for insurgency and low-intensity conflict ever since. In the information age, RAND says, the future of swarming is in connectivity: Our Army, too, should fight in deployments of light, technologically interconnected small units. If there is a way to even the playing field, it’s to counter swarm with swarm.
11. Smart Mobs. In 2003, the flash-mob phenomenon put swarms in the service of agitprop, when spontaneous e-mail organization caused 100 unconnected people to gather at the New York City Macy’s carpet section to all stare at one particular very expensive rug then, as instructed, declare that they were shopping for a Love Rug. During the Republican National Convention in New York, protestors armed with cell phones and text-messaging took their organization to the streets — only to be countered by New York police versed in the same counter-swarm techniques Alexander applied against the Scythian archers. Still, it wasn’t long before Bill Gates realized he needed a monopoly on this new form of human interaction. Thus was born Microsoft’s appropriately titled Swarm technology. Still in the prototype stage, it’s a social-networking tool that makes flash-mob-type mail distribution readily available on your cell phone. One message can go to a list of 10, 50, 100 other phones. Gates, it seems, is well positioned to corner the market, this time on protesters, activists, bloggers, spammers, rioters, club-hoppers, art pranksters — and global insurgents. In Iraq, cell phones and text messages are already a critical weapon of the insurgency. If they now fight like Shaka’s Zulu army with instant messaging, what will happen when they get ahold of the multiuser MS Swarm?