In the all-important task of selecting a new location for their hive, honey bees exhibit an uncanny ability to optimize the location of the new hive for a number of variables, including food storage, size, and rearing brood capabilities. These kind of complex optimization tasks are usually the sort that machine algorithms excel at, but prove frightfully difficult for humans. Surprisingly, the honey bees seem uniquely adept at this, and it led researchers to uncover a form of swarm intelligence in nature.
Swarm intelligence, in its essence, allows for an optimized decision to emerge from a riot of conflicting opinions. In the case of the honey bees, hundreds of different scout bees searching for a new location for the hive pool their individual findings into a collective choice that best expresses the needs of the group. Whereas simple polling methods as they apply to humans tend to polarize a group into divisive factions, swarm intelligence uses these conflicting opinions to arrive at a solution that maximizes the collective interests of the group.
If we were to apply swarm intelligence to the 2016 US presidential election, the optimal solution to the selection of a president in the face of a highly polarized electorate would likely trend toward a moderate like Jeb Bush or Martin O’Malley. In contrast, with today’s political system, we see a race towards the extremes, with ideologues like Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders gaining disproportionate favor.
Indeed, politics is one of the key areas in which swarm intelligence stands to have the greatest benefit. As UNU’s creator Louis Rosenberg told Newsweek, “Forcing polarized groups into a swarm allows them to find the answer that most people are satisfied with. Our vision is to enable the power of group intelligence for everybody.”
The bigger question might be whether we can implement methods of swarm intelligence fast enough to save us from our collective folly as individuated intelligences. Taking the long view, there can be little doubt the problems of the future, as encapsulated by global warming and environmental degradation, will require forms of intelligence and cooperation far beyond what we currently have in place. Methods like those of swarm intelligence might just hold the answer.