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A Crash Course On Complexity, Emergence and Collective Intelligence

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A Crash Course On Complexity, Emergence and Collective Intelligence

"Put a hundred army ants on a flat surface and they will walk around in never decreasing circles until they die from exhaustion. Yet a colony of a million army ants becomes a sophisticated super-organism."

An anonymous 17th century poet wrote: "...and the thousands of fishes moved as a huge beast, piercing the water. They appeared united, inexorably bound to a common fate. How comes this unity?"

This is the science of emergence and complexity.

The Article, Emergence as a Construct (dead link) which appeared in Volume 1 of Emergence Magazine provides a detailed, although rather complex look at the subject. Better yet, a web-based project over at MIT allows you to explore emergence via the wonderful world of cellular automaton. (Remember Stephen Wolfram's ode to the cellular automaton, A New Kind of Science?) You can also use this piece of software to create interactive art pieces that use emergence to "provide the opportunity to explore the role of artificial life and human presence in the creation of an art form which includes the interactive experience."

I find that I am drawn to one particular subset of emergence known as Collective Intelligence. The Chef and I have spent many hours discussing this concept. You may have noticed that I've been linking to Wikipedia through-out this post. Wikipedia is great example of Collective Intelligence, it's a free encyclopedia made for and by the collective intelligence of the citizens of the internet.

The following projects are exploring this global net-based intelligence in some interesting and novel ways:

  • Typophile : A Smaller Picture - Harnessing the collective intelligence to democratically draw the english alphabet. Make sure you try viewing the drawing/evolution process as an animation. (The one flaw I see in this project is that the collective intelligence will most likely end up drawing a copy of the font used on the site itself.)

  • The World Map of the Mind - "Visitors to the project are presented with the map so far, a crude bitmap build out of green and blue blocks. Green blocks represent land, blue blocks water. One of the blocks is red. The visitor is then asked whether that block should be land or water." (The project appears to be offline at the moment due to a heavy user load.)

  • Community based news and discussion sites like slashdot and kuro5in use the collective intelligence of their user-base to improve and moderate the quality of information, discussion and debate.

  • The Collective Unconsciousness Project - Explore the connections that exist in the dreams of net users across the globe. Add your own dream experiences to the dreamscape. Navigation is quite dream-like.

  • Site like daypop and blogdex allow us to track meme probagation across the blogsphere.

  • The Open Mind Common Sense Project - "An attempt to make computers smarter by making it easy and fun for people all over the world to work together to give computers the millions of pieces of ordinary knowledge that constitute 'common-sense', all those aspects of the world that we all understand so well we take them for granted."

Further Reading:

These are exciting times. We have an opportunity to watch and study the development of an emergent intelligence rooted deep within the interconnections of the net. The interconnections in this case, are not only the physical real-world network connections but also the interconnections within the web itself, the blogshere and the flow of human consciousness that "surfs" across the datascape.

Update: (21/02/06)

Since this post, Folksonomy and tagging have become all the rage. Services like Spurl,, Digg, and Reddit (to name just a few) harness online collective intelligence to categorize, and propagate websites. I discussed this last February in the Noosphere Snapshots section of my post on net-based search and discovery.

A few more relevant links:

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