Can ants teach us work-life balance?

Understanding decentralized organization and information sharing in ants colonies. Can ants teach us how to design a new social contract for our societies?

By far, the greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence is that people conclude too early that they understand it. Eliezer Yudkowsky

All organizations rely on division of labor to optimize resources for survival or the greater good of societies. In human organizations, leaders, engineers, or other gurus traditionally allocate roles from the top. Could decentralized organizations be more flexible and cheaper to operate? Will instantaneous information sharing (via social media) trigger some disruption and transform of our society? How should individuals decide what to do to succeed in our fast changing world? Well, clues to start answering these questions emerge from the study of social insect colonies.

Ant colonies are complex societies with industrial-scale farming

10,000 years ago, humans gave up their life as hunter-gatherers to become farmers. For the Attini ants from South America, this critical agricultural revolution took place at the end of the dinosaur age. Some 65 million years ago, they began farming fungus “to produce edible proteins, lipids [fats] and carbohydrates through decomposition.”

In both cases, converting to farming was not immediately successful. It required further evolution on two fronts: technology and organization, state a research in Nature Communications.

For the ants, the technological success was the domestication of fungus species that were metabolically more efficient to digest. In parallel, ants developed “complex societies with industrial-scale farming” able to react quickly to changes. Colonies were prepared to resist environmental shift (eg drop in organic material) or adverse events (eg wars).

Ants teach us how to use social media
Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television—Lewis Thomas

Flexible organizations are key for survival

There are different types of insect organization, says a study published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. One model relies on specialization of role based on age or morphology. For instance:

  • The largest ants with augmented mandibles cut the green leaves
  • The mid-sized ones transport them back to the nest
  • The smaller workers harvest the fungus
  • Older ants specialize in finding food supply, having better knowledge of the nest surroundings

To meet the colony need at all time, the exact type and number of ants must be produced. Quite a complex task when factoring sudden changes in external conditions, breeding latency and shift in mortality rate. Such systems are generally efficient in stable habitat but suffer from a lack of reactivity in more volatile environments.

In contrast, more flexible organizations are decentralized in various structure:

  • In some organization, individuals continuously monitor the colony welfare. They switch task upon the occurrence of certain stimuli such as nest temperature or chemical secretion (pheromone).
  • Other systems are based on local need. The inactive ant workers wander and engage in tasks when stumbling upon the stimuli.
  • In alternative systems, each worker is subject to the same stimuli but act differently based on their respective response thresholds. Such response thresholds in ants can be set genetically or during larva development, possibly changing with age. 

The key to flexible organizations is to produce, gather and interpret information without incurring prohibitive costs. For ants, time and energy spent to find or produce food is the main cost of the colony.

Evidence of individual behaviors in colonies

However, the ability of individual members to process cognitive information helps the colony to be smarter about its environment. It enhances the decision making. For example, the Newscientist describes the process by which ants select their home.  The more satisfied an ant is with a possible location, the more time it spends secreting pheromone in it. And the more chemicals, the more likely other ants will join to form the nest.

Here again, the various response thresholds in ants play a role. Ants with the lower response thresholds seed the majority that will accept the new location. However, the ones with the higher response thresholds will continue to scout for a better place. Accordingly, individual behaviors are differentiated for the greater good of societies.

Ants teach us how to take a break in a hammock
If ants are such busy workers, how come they find time to go to all the picnics? Marie Dressler

Similarly, when a worker finds food, the ant brings back a piece of it to the nest. They leave behind a trail of pheromone to lead other ants back to the food source, says another PNAS research. Other scouting ants will likely do the same, resulting in lots of pheromone trails more or less efficient. However, the shorter the trail, the stronger is the chemical. As a result, more ants take the shortest way which further reinforces the scent. The highest traffic quickly sets the optimized route to the food source.

This sorting of the most relevant information is very fast and more reliable than most of our internet search engines. Emulating such optimization process is the next challenge for human organizations.

Ants teach us how to use social media technology

Today, many industries are embracing decentralized operations. They collect information from smartphones, social media or other data sources to help predict future events or solve optimization problems.

It can be as simple as reducing congestion in airports, like at Narita Airport near Tokyo. The number of immigration counters had not kept up with the increase in foreign visitors, resulting in long waiting times. Airlines, airport and Ministry of Justice agreed to share Information in January 2015 about the number of non-Japanese passengers arriving. This allowed bottom-up decision-making regarding the number of counter to open upon passenger arrival, cutting wait times in half.

Science Advances reports another original application to detect large earthquakes via the GPS included in smartphones. In short, A magnitude-7 earthquake is spotted if a sufficient number of phones located in the same sector reports at the same time at least a 5 centimeter displacement.

In California, less than 5,000 phones would be needed to detect such seismic wave in just 5 seconds. It would enable an alert to nearby large cities and the deployment of protective measures.

Can ants teach us how to overcome the growing gap between productivity and unemployment?
Recent increase in decentralized information technologies
add to the fear of job reduction and social injustice

But can ants teach us how to design a new social contract?

Of course, the increased usage of decentralized information technologies to optimize and automate tasks in human organizations or societies adds to the fear of job reduction and social injustice.

Looking again at social insect colonies, where 50 to 70% of workers are inactive, provides surprising perspectives. Of course, keeping a spare number of inactive ant workers save energy. Nonetheless, inactive workers remain ready for peak workload, including war or new colony settlements. The key to flexible organizations may depend on the right balance of response threshold to stimuli from the environment.

To prevent social injustice from new technologies, human societies will have to define a new social contract. A welfare system could support inactive workers in exchange for call of duty upon the occurrence of common purposes. Hopefully, such calls will not be for wars, but more peaceful endeavors. Maybe to open a human settlement on Mars or in a galaxy far, far away…

To prevent social injustice from new technologies while gaining efficiency and maintaining sustainability, human societies will need to define a new social contract. One that will provide a welfare systems to support inactive workers in exchange for call of duty upon the occurrence of common purposes. Hopefully such calls will not be for wars, but for more peaceful endeavors like opening human settlements on Mars or in a galaxy far, far away….

Soundtrack about what ants teach us

Soundtrack for video on what ants can teach us. The music is constructed around southern Europe guitars to evoke the far niente

You may also like these stories:

3 Steps to Build an Artificial Intelligence

Looking to build an Artificial Intelligence? This tutorial explains the 3 basic steps from data warehousing to deep learning to attention and consciousness

By far, the greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence is that people
conclude too early that they understand it — Eliezer Yudkowsky

English writer Richard Braithwait was the first to use the word “computer” in 1613. He was describing a highly skilled person able to perform complex calculations. This is not without irony that, in the not-too-far future, computer machines may become virtual persons able to operate independently with their own intelligence and consciousness.

A brief history of computer science

The first concept of a computer machine emerged in the 19th century.  English engineer Charles Babbage (1791–1871) conceived – but never built – the Analytical Engine. The design had (i) an arithmetical logic unit (the “mill”, now called ALU) to perform all four arithmetic operations; (ii) a control unit to interpret instructions (“punched cards”, now called programs); and (iii) the ability to memorize 1,000 numbers of 40 digits each using physical wheels (the “store,” now called RAM). 

Still, it took another century before Alan Turing laid out in his 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers” the key principles for machines to perform detailed computations.  The need for machine to help decipher encoded messages during WWII lead to the first general–purpose digital computer: the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) in 1946. It is said that lights dim in Philadelphia when it was turned on for the first time.

From there, the technology improved exponentially, each generation building faster and faster on the previous achievements:

  • first commercial use in 1951 (Universal Automatic Computer, or UNIVAC 1);
  • replacement of vacuum tubes by transistors in 1955;
  • invention of integrated circuits in late 50’s;
  • Intel’s first single-chip microprocessor in 1971;
  • IBM’s first personal computer (PC) for home and office use in the 80’s, running the new Microsoft’s MS-Dos operating system;
  • Introduction of Windows in the 90’s.

There doesn’t seem to be an end to the technological progress. Like for hardware, artificial intelligence will get smarter in successive waves of innovations.

Rows of filing cabinets replaced by Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence is better than most humans at information-processing jobs

Artificial Intelligence 1.0: “knowledge” learning

Today, computers have become ubiquitous in all areas of life, at work or at home. Indeed, computers are useful tools that are much better than most humans involved in information-processing jobs (65 percent of the American workforce).

In addition to surpassing the human mental capacity for calculation and processing tasks, computers enable global interconnection of people and information sharing through the internet.  This has brought universal knowledge to our connected doors.

The development of powerful computers and cheap / fast access memory in the late 70’s made the progress possible. Today, operators can direct machines to collect, clean and sort data to gain insight. The logical next step was for computers to recognize patterns in the data by themselves.  Welcome to the birth of artificial intelligence. 

Artificial Intelligence 2.0: deep, “predictive” learning

Behavior recognition to predict outcome is what machines are learning to do today.  For example, many tech companies are developing solutions to assess which customers are most likely to buy specific products. This information is then used to decide the best marketing / distribution channels.  Without the computers’ analytics, decisions are made based on expert judgment. Such decisions are often biased toward the outcome most favorable to the expert interests. Results are usually worse than relying purely on data.

Artificial Intelligence is like a bicycle running in the brain
What we call Artificial Intelligence today is the ability of machines to recognize patterns in large volume of non-structured data by themselves

The human brain was the inspiration for the deep neural network technology. Via successive grouping and layering, computers can extract the essential relations (characteristics) existing in large cloud of non-structured data. Through this deeper-and-deeper classification, the system learns without supervision nor specific programs.

A new generation of graphics processing units (GPU), derived from video games, are particularly suited to recognize patterns in large volume of heterogeneous data. Interestingly, computers achieve 98% success rate in image recognition, whereas humans are wrong in 5% of the cases.

Soon, deep learning will allow a machine to learn a language and get not only the general sense but also the context, irony, metaphors, jokes, even intonation and silence. For the moment, machines can identify patterns but lack the tools to put things in perspective, prioritize and recommend a course of action.  To be able to make decisions, a computer would need to be aware of the context. This is the next step towards consciousness.

Emoticons displaying emotions lacking in Artificial Intelligence today
The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice
and therefore intelligence — Jean Baudrillard

Artificial Intelligence 3.0: “attention” learning

Somehow, the brain also processes information but in a more subjective manner, through memories, senses and emotions, which provides context and awareness. To gain this level of consciousness, a machine would need to dispose of:

  • its surrounding “object blueprint.” Each object or fact is represented by a generic vector.  Using deep learning (see 2.0 above), today’s computers are able to build their own representation.
  • its own “body blueprint.” Each machine must have its own virtual representation. It includes characteristics of physical shape, personality traits (behavior), and past performance (memories). This is a critical phase if one wants to avoid creating a killing machine.
  • an “attention scheme.” This scheme is a description of the complex relationship between the “body” and the “object.” It is a practical map providing information about where we are, where we want to be and the various paths/landmarks.

Without an attention scheme, the machine would not be able to explain how it relates to anything in the world. With one, the machine would be able to affirm its awareness of the object… the same way a human would say it has consciousness, without being able to explain where it comes from. This is still Science Fiction, but the kind based on realistic scientific advances.

Soundtrack for the Artificial Intelligence video

Soundtrack for video on Artificial Intelligence, created by layering techno beats, computer sounds and digital voices

You may also like these stories:

True Story of a Murder Solved by a Mosquito

Watch one of the best true crime stories ever, leading to reflect on ethical use of DNA evidence from CSI forensics to mosquito eradication

Watch the true murder story solved by a mosquito

True crime story better than CSI TV shows

The video was inspired by a true story reported in the minutes of the International Society for Forensics Genetics assembly held in 2006.  This true story took place in Sicily after the discovery of the corpse of a transsexual prostitute near a beach. The main suspect was a business man living in a faraway neighborhood. The day of the murder, his car had been seen near the beach. 

(SPOILERS:) From the blood of one dead mosquito at the home of the business man, the forensic police was able to identify the DNA of the victim.  Moreover, investigators were able to verify that the mosquito specie would not have been able to fly the distance from the beach to the suspect house on its own. Hence, the presence of the dead mosquito was an irrefutable proof of the connection between the suspect and the victim.  Combined with sand and other vegetal fragments from the beach also discovered at its home, the jury found the business man guilty of murder.

Top 5 frequently asked question about mosquito

This is a true but unusual story, as mosquitoes are more likely to be the active murderer than the passive witness.  In effect, approximately 725 000 people die each year from disease carried by mosquitoes, such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, west nile virus and other chikungunya.  Accordingly, mosquitoes are far more efficient killers compared to sharks (only 10 human kills in 2013) or wolves (average of 7 mortal attacks per year) that nonetheless receive more airtime.

cartoon of a mosquito biting a peaceful sleeper
Take a lesson from the mosquito. She never waits for an opening — she makes one. Kirk Kirkpatrick

Fortunately, not all mosquito bites bring death, otherwise humanity would not have evolved this far. Indeed, the relationship is quite long. The oldest mosquito specimen we found was caught in amber some 80 million years ago in Canada.  This conflicted, but well understood, relationship continues to drive us crazy every day.

1. Why do Mosquitos bite?

Only the female mosquito bites. She needs the proteins from the blood to lay her eggs, while male mosquitoes feed on nectar harvested from flowers.  Although, not all female mosquitoes are attracted to humans.  Of the 3,500 species, only a couple hundred feast on human blood as the rest lives in forests and sustains on animal blood.

2. Why are some people more prone to mosquito bites than others?

Well, it seems like not all blood proteins are equal.  Mosquitoes read the blood type from chemical signals secreted by 85% of the people on their skin.  The prudent 15% not sharing blood information are more likely to be ignored.  But for the rest of us, Type O blood is targeted twice as often as those with Type A. Type B blood is somewhere in the middle.  

3. Why do Mosquitos buzz in our ears? 

Mosquitoes detect their prey from exhaled carbon dioxide up to 100 feet away.  Since human breath through their nose and mouth, mosquitoes are attracted to our heads.  By the way, tall or obese people who exhale more CO2 gas are more prone to getting attacked than children or underweight people.

Burial of a person killed by a mosquito bite
Mosquito, the greatest mass murderer on planet Earth

4. Why do we itch after being bitten?

When a female mosquito inserts her mouth trump, called proboscis, into the victim’s skin, she injects some saliva.  The saliva serves as an anticoagulant to keep the blood liquid and drinkable. In most of us, the foreign fluid triggers a natural immune response which results in the production of histamines.  The following chemical reaction results in the dreaded itch.  Diseases, such as malaria, are transmitted to human through the saliva injected by the contaminated mosquito.

5. Why can’t we eradicate mosquito once and for all?

Hmm, that’s the ultimate ethical question arising every time humans try to play gods.  A British biotech firm has patented a method of breeding genetically-modified male mosquitoes. The GMOs are then released in the wild in large quantities. After mating with wild females, their offspring larvae die before being able to fly or bite, reducing quickly the population. While appealing to fight dangerous disease, some scientists are worried about the unknown effects on the ecosystem. the eradication of mosquitoes could induce a dramatic change in the food chain for many species including spiders, salamanders, frogs, fish and birds.  Others are concerned about uncontrolled natural mutation of such genetically modified organisms into a more fearful transmitter of disease.

Slapping conclusion to our mosquito true story

Voila! We went full circle from the DNA science helping to solve the murder of a single man to the DNA science helping to mass murder entire species. Will we be able to make the best use of this technology for the greater good?  Well, to echo the punch line of the video:

“Before swatting your next mosquito, be sure you have a clear conscience”

Soundtrack for our crime solver mosquito

Soundtrack mixing steel pan music and film noir ambiance

You may also like these stories:

Stress Relief is a Walk in the Park | Greenspace

Feeling stress and fatigue? Take a break and watch relaxing scenery and greenspace based on recent neuroscience stress relief techniques

City parks serve, day in and day out, as the primary greenspace for the majority of Americans –Bruce Babbitts

More than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. Further concentration in urban areas is underway if we compare to the current 80% ratio for the U.S. population.

Increased chronic stress situations in urban environment

People in urban environment experiences chronic stress situations during their daily commute or work days. Stress triggers ‘fight or flight’ response through the physiological releases of hormones, such as cortisol. It also suppresses cognitive functions by re-directing full attention to the task at hand. Such responses, when frequent and prolonged, lead to general tiredness. As a result, health can be negatively affected unless people are able to develop restorative strategy.

Recent researches focus on natural landscapes to improve well-being in different but possibly interrelated ways: 

  • One approach, the Stress Reduction Theory, emphasizes the physiology outcomes of time spent in nature. An automatic process takes place between sensory stimulation, preconscious emotions and logical thought which creates a meditative mood. In effect, greenspace acts the same way as yoga or spiritual emotion to trigger a relaxation feeling. It opens the door to new perspectives and resets the state of mind to a new level of stress or relaxation.
  • Another approach, the Attention Restoration Theory, suggests that greenspace provide stimulation without the need to maintain concentration, hence restoring the cognitive capacity for attention.
Bird bathing in a puddle of greenspace
Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better –A. Einstein

The benefits of greenspace

Observations in hospitals tend to confirm the influence of greenspace.  For examples, in one study, surgical patients whose windows faced natural outdoor scenery were discharged sooner. They also requested fewer painkillers than patients whose windows faced a brick wall.  

In another key experiment, artificially stressed people visioning a video of a natural setting had a faster and more complete physiological recovery than those seeing built environments.  Interestingly, meditative walking in the forest increases happiness to a greater degree than walking at the same pace at the gym or viewing virtual nature video.

Some landscapes seem to be more restorative than others.  Large empty green space with long-distance panorama (more than 400 yards/meters), open sky and natural asymmetry are more effective.  The least contemplative settings are small pocket gardens, with geometrical paths à la française and enclosed spaces.  

While natural smells and sounds associated with pleasant memories provide additional contemplative triggers, brightly colored flowers and numerous eye-catching elements are less relaxing. 

Couple on a swing in middle of greenspace
Do not underestimate the value of doing nothing –A, A, Milne
Doing nothing is not boring. It is peace –Milan Kundera

City parks are the primary greenspace for Americans

Just as hospitals need healing spaces, cities need serene oases to compensate for the urban chaos.  Easy access to greenspace, view of nature from windows, and tree-covered plaza contribute to positive emotions. In turn, they provide a higher levels of neighborhood satisfaction and social engagement as well as lower crime rates. 

Furthermore, urban trees help purifying air. They capture carbon emission and reduce fossil fuel consumption though shading in summer and blocking cold wind in winter.  However. trees decay and release carbon gases back into the atmosphere. Still, this is a long process that gives us more time to adapt to climate changes.

Come enjoy a walk in the park with us!

Soundtrack for a walk in greenspace

Soundtrack based on relaxing aerial piano on top of light percussion and singing birds

You may also like these stories:

Why the future belongs to Vampires

Are you afraid of vampires? Longevity research says young blood transfusion can help reverse aging in mice. What if, after all, drinking blood was the cure!

Watch animation video inspired by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Following our previous post on “how to become a Grim Reaper,” we continue our exploration of the dark worlds with this time the “Vampires.”  No, this was not planned but opportunistically triggered by 2 articles found in her Majesty’s Telegraph. 

Vampires with psychological need to consume blood

The first one relates to a study performed by Dr Emyr Williams, a psychology lecturer at Glyndwr University in Wrexham. For sure, with a name like that this university must be in Transylvania – Oops, apologies to my numerous Welsh readers! So, this doctor studied the lifestyle of “a group of individuals who believe they have a psychological need to consume blood.”  10,000 to 15,000 people in the UK belongs to this group, but you can apparently find these communities all over the world.

Vampires waking up
Drinking blood to feel young and vigorous

Where do these modern vampires find blood to drink?

Then I stumbled upon an article from Lee Moran in the NY Daily News.  Wait! Isn’t the Daily News the newspaper for which Superman, sorry Clark Kent, works?  Oops again and apologies to my numerous DC Comics readers since Clark works for the Daily Planet.  This article reported that a mom from Pennsylvania was drinking half a gallon of live human blood every month.  Wait a second, I am getting confused.  Is Pennsylvania located next to Transylvania? Oops for the third time and apologies to my numerous Mid-Atlantic states readers. 

So this mom is also a care worker.  Hold on now. Does that mean she works in a hospital with free access to blood supply? Nope and apologies to my numerous hospital worker readers. The beverage comes from actual donors that you can meet in local “oddities” stores. Is this another name for night clubs in New York City? Oops, apparently not, and apologies to my numerous night clubbing readers in NYC. 

So, these donors agree to be cut opened with a sterilized knife to satisfy the thirst of this 45-year old woman.  What?  I am missing something here but no need for apology this time.  Anyway, this woman says she drinks blood to feel “young and vigorous.”

Laboratory experience to measure effect of blood transfusion on aging like vampires
Louis Pasteur in his laboratory

Young blood transfusion in mice helps cure aging

This brings me to a third article but the second one from the Telegraph, if you still follow.  Admittedly, this article is the most serious one about science discovery to cure aging. Oops, didn’t know that was a disease – apologies to my numerous scientific readers. 

They do this blood transfusion stuff on mice who now have super powers. A bit like Superman from the Daily Planet (yes, I did remember correctly this time).  Not sure why they bothered these cute little things and didn’t just study the Tour de France bike riders.  They have been doing blood transfusion for years now to improve their cycling performance… Unless this was just to improve their memory of the stage route. I don’t remember, maybe it’s time for my pint of blood. 

Next post will be on werewolf – just kidding.

The MAKING-OF the Vampires

Video includes extracts from the following film trailers: Interview With The Vampire; Dracula Has Risen From The Grave; Taste The Blood Of Dracula; A Taste Of Blood; Horror Of Dracula; Mon Oncle d’Amerique;

Soundtrack for the future belongs to Vampires

Soundtrack starts with a rhythmic section reproducing a ticking clock and degenerating with time in ocean waves and aerial piano

You may also like these stories: