When Intelligent Humans Learn from Birds!!

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

When Intelligent Humans Learn from Birds!!

Collective Intelligence aka Swarm Intelligence

Photo by Shwetha Shankar on Unsplash

We, humans, show immense pride in calling ourselves the most intelligent species on this planet earth, which is true up to an extent. However, there are areas where simple living beings like birds and fishes outsmart us, one of which is collective intelligence, which is the main focus of this article.

As a child, I used to watch flocks of birds flying in different shapes like a V or U and wonder how they maintain such a fascinating equilibrium. We can observe such remarkable patterns among other species also, like ants marching in and out of a nest or a shoal of fish while trying to defend a predator or finding a mate. We call such groups by different names like flocks, schools, shoals, blooms, colonies, herds, and swarms. Whatever we call them, one thing is clear — that social creatures, by functioning together in closed-loop systems, can outperform the vast majority of individual members when solving problems and making decisions, thereby boosting overall survival probability of their population. For the purpose of simplicity, we call all these groups as ‘swarms’ and the collective intelligence of the group as ‘swarm intelligence’.

According to Wikipedia, swarm intelligence is the collective behaviour of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial.

Swarm members work together as a unified dynamic system, their collective behaviour tightly coordinated by a real-time feedback loop. In nature, swarms of bees/birds/ants/fishes have been shown to make decisions by working together as a unified system, significantly amplifying their combined intelligence. Animals use different mechanisms for this feedback loop, like chemical traces by ants, water vibrations by fishes and gestures by bees. This feedback mechanism enables the three basic rules of swarm behaviour:

  • Move in the same direction as their neighbours
  • Remain close to their neighbours
  • Avoid collisions with their neighbours

Swarm behaviour is the collective motion of a large number of self-propelled entities. From the perspective of the mathematical modeller, it is an emergent behaviour arising from simple rules that are followed by individuals and does not involve any central coordination. A number of mathematical models have been developed based on swarm behaviour, such as Ant colony optimization, Self-propelled particles, Particle swarm optimization.

Swarm Intelligence Vs Crowd Sourcing

One way we can think of collective intelligence among humans is by crowdsourcing, which is defined as the practice of obtaining information or input into a task or project by enlisting the services of a large number of people.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

In crowdsourcing, many individuals collaborate on a single problem and are often more effective than an individual working alone. This is because the collective knowledge of the group allows for a comprehensive and intricate treatment of the problem and therefore achieves much better results. It sequentially aggregates the input from the group and picks the average trend or the solution with the highest votes/ranking (e.g. StackOverflow, polls) as the group’s solution.

However, crowdsourcing doesn’t do anything towards building a unanimity among the members and leave them divided, whereas swarms enable groups to find the commonality among them and converge on solutions that optimize support and unleash its collective intelligence.

Can humans swarm?

In the natural world, the process of evolution has produced two unique and powerful forms of intelligence that we know of:

  • Neurological intelligence emerges by connecting large numbers of simple processing units (neurons) into complex real-time networks (brains).
  • Swarm Intelligence is similar in many ways but connects groups of intelligent organisms (brains) into complex real-time networks that biologists call swarms. A swarm can be interpreted as a “brain of brains” that has the capacity to function as a superintelligence, as it can significantly outperform the individual members that make up the system.

Researchers are now working on combining the above two features into a single entity called Artificial Swarm Intelligence, or simply Swarm AI which connects human groups into emergent systems moderated by AI algorithms modelled on biological swarms (e.g bees/ants). An Artificial Swarm Intelligence of a human population is a “hive mind” and it can achieve superintelligent results and significantly outperform all the individual members who participate.

Ref: Singularity University

One particular organisation which caught my attention in the field of Swarm AI is Unanimous AI which was founded based on a simple premise that if birds and bees and fish can get so much smarter by thinking together in swarms, the same should hold true for human swarms. Those who are interested to know more about this, please refer to the below excellent article.

A small group of doctors moderated by AI algorithms made a more accurate diagnosis than individual physicians or AI alone

Some Applications of Swarm Intelligence

Crowd Simulation: Artists are using swarm technology as a means of creating complex interactive systems or simulating crowds. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns also made use of swarm technology for showing the movements of a group of bats. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy made use of similar technology, known as Massive, during battle scenes.

Military Applications: As with any technology, Swarm AI can be used for both constructive or destructive purposes. Imagine a ‘swarm’ of small drones flying in formation leading the advance into enemy territory doing surveillance and hindering hostile forces before the ground troops arrive. This is exactly what the US Marine Corps envisions with the Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology also known as LOCUST. A human does monitor the formation but once launched the swarm operates autonomously as a group. Another country which is leading the Swarm AI revolution is China, which recently demonstrated illuminated drones maneuver in sync at the Global Fortune Forum in Guangzhou, China.

Ref: The Diplomat


Swarm AI has a very promising future indeed, with a wide array of applications. Looking into a future with Artificial Intelligence power and Human Intelligence power working together, we could truly have the tools to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time. Conversely, it has a high potential to be exploited by the military industries and cyber attackers.


Louis Rosenberg, July 2015, Human Swarming and the future of Collective Intelligence

FighterSweep Staff, Mar 2017, The SWARM! Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology(LOCUST)

Carl Zimmer, Nov 2017, From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm

Shay Hershkovitz, Apr 2018, When Humans Meet AI: The Next Generation of Crowdsourcing

Louis Rosenberg, Sep 2019, Can Humans Use Artificial Swarm Intelligence to Make Smarter, Faster Decisions?