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

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When Unicorns Burned the Silicon Valley

How does technology affect us? The drama of social media addiction is unfolding as Silicon Valley unicorns’ greediness poses blazing threats to humanity

Technology changes all the time; human nature, hardly ever — Evgeny Morozov

Technology Utopia

We all wished technology would be good. Indeed, we hoped that technology would reunite mankind by connecting people. Likewise, we craved for healthy democratic debate over the internet forums to create a hive mind. Surely, all the knowledge barriers would be removed for a better and happier life. We definitely wanted to achieve total spiritual transcendence. Yes, this was our technology utopia.

  • So it was. Tech heaven, all over, forever.
  • High five, hive minds! Hi symbiotic soul systems!
  • Freedom of speech for democratic fool forums.
  • Bits and bots to better our bodily fever.
clouds morphing into silicon valley unicorns
Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins.
Facebook is ego. Zynga is sloth. LinkedIn is greed — Reid Hoffman

Tech Addiction Driven by Greedy Silicon Valley Unicorns

As usual the greedy behaviors of a few disrupted the grand aspirations of all.  Soon enough the so called Silicon Valley unicorns (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, etc) looked to exploit millennials’ eagerness for a new ideal of freedom.  To make a lot of money in a short period of time, social media developed technology addiction schemes. Now, we have raised a generation of virtual ghosts, hooked on repetitive and meaningless screen interactions.

  • Looking for transcendence, we met withdrawal.
  • Unicorns rose and drove virtual numbing creed:
  • Disruption and addiction to feed the beastly greed.
  • Social bridle, swill pill, sure opiate for all

Existential Singularity Threat

The worse is to come. Admittedly, the race is already on to create artificial intelligence that will soon lead to the birth of a conscious singularity. By then, competition will no longer be between Silicon Valley unicorns but with uncontrolled, inhuman, non-physical entities. Afterwards, there will be no referees to moderate this existential threat to mankind.

  • Now, singularities fly by for the money!
  • Looms to doom your wombs. I used to f… the police.
  • Now I f…  startups made in Silicon Valley
a single bubble in a huge bubble bath of other universes
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity,
and I’m not sure about the former — Albert Einstein

Big Bang Boom! Another Quantum Leap!

Big bang boom! If technology destroy us, may be science will find an escape route. Still, even a trip to Mars may not be far enough to hide.  In the end, quantum physics may open a door to a parallel universe. We hope that we will be able to make the big quantum leap, naked as the first humans, to another bubble free of artificial singularities.

  • After the big burn out, will there be time to flee?
  • Crack the code. Crank the wheel. Big bang boom! And release
  • Another quantum leap to the next bubbly spree.

Soundtrack for Unicorns video:

Technophobia rap song against the Silicon Valley unicorns


All visuals were selected, edited, animated and colored by to form the following sequences:

  1. Technology Utopia. Simple open scenery to signify the purity of the technology heaven at the center of which sits the tree of life. But the Technophobia clouds are forming as the sun sets. Indeed. the birds fly away in anticipation of the approaching danger but also as the symbol of the vanishing spirit of the technology utopia. 
  2. Greedy Silicon Valley Unicorns. Slowly, the clouds are taking the shape of the Silicon Valley unicorns (courtesy Escalada‘s Chevalier a la licorne), morphing into a Shin Megami Tensei demon to suggest the evil technology addiction scheme.
  3. Existential Singularity Threat. Once again, the clouds morph, this time in the shape of a spaceship destroyer embodying the existential threat of artificial intelligence singularity. 
  4. Big Bang Boom! The land and the tree of life are burning until everything collapses into a black hole. By then, a bubble universe appears out of nowhere in which a new tree of life is growing. Other parallel universes sprout, providing an optimistic ending about life and science.

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10 Survival Tips for Cavemen and Bloggers

Want to know the history of social networking? Look at the stages of human evolution, from cavemen extinction to social media. Watch out for trolls!

Focus on sustainability.  Even cavemen dna survived in modern humans

The slow evolution of cavemen

Three million years ago, Lucy, the most famous Australopithecus Afarensis, was still climbing trees and just starting to walk upright.  Humanity took one million more years to learn how to make tools out of stones. Add another million years before our ancestor Homo Heidelbergensis gained control of the fire, built shelters, and used wooden spears.

Homo Heidelbergensis evolved differently between regions, They became the Neanderthal 400,000 years ago in Europe/Asia, and the Homo Sapiens in Africa some 200,000 years ago.

The Neanderthals lived fast and died young. They hunt large animals to survive in cold weather.  As a result, they developed muscle and broader frame. They also grow large eye sockets to compensate for the short days with reduced visibility.  However, these large bodies and enhanced vision used most of their brain activity.

The first bloggers in the history of social networking

About 60,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens started migrating from Africa into Europe.  With their smaller bodies, Homo Sapiens were more mobile. Given their more limited visual capability, they also had more brain power available in their frontal lobes to develop social networking, artistic skills and symbolic thinking.

The first bloggers are the Cavemen painting in caverns
Meet others.  Share experience on your travel and photo blogs.  Create do-it-yourself and how-to guides. Post spiritual thoughts and visual art.

Homo Sapiens adapted better thanks to their superior communication, innovative weaponry, cooperative hunting, extensive trading and broader diet.  Furthermore, they had a longer childhood, hence more time to learn from parents, which contributed to longer lifespan.  In the end, the outperformed Neanderthals gave away their territory to the more adaptable new comers.

The cavemen in us

There was no real co-habitation between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens. Nonetheless, some interbreeding may have taken place at the fringe.  Given the lack of full biological compatibility, the male hybrids were infertile. Some Neanderthal genes survived after all through the female offspring, mostly the ones related to insulation to cold (e.g. skin and hair).

In the end, Neanderthal specie disappeared within 5,000 years.  Thanks to the sequencing of DNA found on old bones, scientists were able to determine that 1 to 4% of the non-African modern humans genome can be traced to Neanderthals. Interestingly, modern diseases such as lupus, crohn, and type 2 diabetes are related to these genes. Some kind of a time bomb, I guess, left by the defeated cavemen.

Soundtrack for the cavemen video. The music evolves from simple tribal percussion, towards more elaborate salsa to finish in modern hip hop

Finally, our 10 survival tips

Modern bloggers and cavemen share similar issues to get started, develop tools, evolve and outperform competition in an environment with scarce resources. Here is the list of our 10 best survival tips:

  1. Stand up, take baby steps, and grow your territory.
  2. Use tools to develop and create.  Rosetta Stone is a good start.
  3. Safety first.  Build secured sites, add firewalls, and set up alerts.
  4. Work on your communication.  Stay in touch with friends and relatives.
  5. Eat healthy. Improve life expectancy, and work life balance.
  6. Keep an open mind.  Explore other place and culture.  Enjoy tourism.
  7. Meet others.  Share experience on your travel, and photo blogs.  Create do-it-yourself, and how-to guides. Post spiritual thoughts, and visual art.
  8. Follow, and like the leaders.
  9. Focus on sustainability.  Even Neanderthal dna survived in modern humans.
  10. The Punch Line: social networking may accelerate evolution, but mind trolls that linger around.

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Adopt the Golden Rule Not Golden Ratio

Looking for perfect proportion or magic golden ratio to measure beauty? Well, remember the Golden Rule that beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Watch video on Golden Rule not Golden Ratio

Is everything chaos and chance?  The Greeks deeply influenced Western philosophy by elaborating a consistent system of numbers and proportions. Their aim was to measure order and harmony in human life, nature and the finest art.

The meaning of numbers

Pythagoras first defined musical harmony, the intervals between notes, by the lengths of strings of the Lyre. While both are actually inversely proportional, he opted not to use the tone frequencies.  Interestingly, rhythm (Rhythmos) and number (Arithmos) share the same root: rheîn = to flow. 

Plato then generalized the geometric proportion to all forms of aesthetic under a broader Metaphysic. For him, “Numbers are the highest degree of Knowledge.” Furthermore, “All these kinds of things received their shapes from the Ordering One, through the action of Ideas and Numbers.”  

For the Pythagoreans, numbers have meaning. Five and the Ten are the most important ones. 

  • Five is the number of Love. You obtain five by uniting Two, the first even – female – number, and Three, the first odd greater than one – male – number.  Later, five became the symbol of humanity represented by the regular pentagon or pentagram. 
  • Ten, or the Decagon, symbolizes the universe. It was chosen as it is the sum of the first four numbers. Ten is equal to 1, the spiritual level, plus 2, the number for woman, plus 3, the number for man, plus 4, the four elements (Earth, Air, Water and Fire).
Plato and Aristotle discussing the Golden Rule
Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth — Aristotle

The math behind the Golden Ratio, or Divine Proportion

With the geometric representation comes the calculation of proportions. In turn, proportions allow for measurements and the idea, still very modern, that you can model the ultimate harmony of the world. Some intellectuals and mathematicians believe that a unique proportion exists in everything. This proportion is called the Golden Ratio, or sometime the Divine Proportion.

The Golden Ratio is calculated as follows:

  • A geometrical proportion exists when “things” share similar relations, e.g. (a/b = c/d)
  • Such proportion is called continuous when b = c. In this case, the proportion is reduced to three terms: (a/b = b/c). 
  • Assuming c = a+b provides a further simplification to 2 terms, i.e. (a/b = b/(a+b))
    or (b/a)2 = (b/a)+1. (b/a) is the Golden Ratio and is usually represented by Φ.
  • The solution to the [Φ2 – Φ – 1 = 0] quadratic equation is Φ = (1+√5)/2 = 1.618. 
Golden rule for golden ratio calculation
A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers — Plato

The Golden Rule is to treat others as one wants to be treated.

Approximation of this ratio has been discovered in some living forms. That is the case for the optimum angle between leaves or branches on a stem to obtain the maximum exposure to vertical light. 

There are also claims that the human body integrates some Golden ratio proportions.  For instance, the bones of the fingers approximate a diminishing series of three terms (1, 1/Φ and 1/Φ2). As a result, the longest bone is approximately equaled to the sum of the two following ones.  However, there are no normalized way to make the measurement and, more often than not, the sizing is stretched to confirm the initial theory.

All this becomes very scary when the golden ratio is used to measure beauty, especially in human face.  Can a mathematical model really define beauty? Is a fixed proportion aesthetically pleasing?  Admittedly, we are again losing common sense and bow in front of this powerful cult that has survived millennia.

In reality, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You don’t want to judge others’ beauty in ways that you would not like your own to be judged!  Follow the golden rule, not the golden ratio.

Soundtrack for Golden Rule:

Based on bar 58 to 61 of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat (Andante) in homage to Michael Nyman who first used this idea for his Drowning by Numbers score.

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