What you need to know about swarm intelligence


Swarm intelligence is a bit like the famous Cole Porter, you know the one:

“Birds do it, bees do it, even educated machines do it...”

But instead of falling in love, these things are composed of individuals who coordinate using decentralized control and self-organization, which in its own way is also a deeply romantic sentiment.

Even if you don’t find this romantic, the concept of swarm intelligence is an incredibly intriguing subject, both for what it currently represents and what the potential applications are.

In the artificial intelligence world, this is also one of the most exciting and dynamic areas of study. While scientists have long been fascinated by the way certain animals can work together to achieve an aim that would be an otherwise impossible feat for an individual, it is only in fairly recent times that we have gleaned how these systems could be applied to other areas, such as technology, sociology and and human biology.

Not only does swarm intelligence affect how we could live our lives in relation to technological development, but the thing that makes it different to most other forms of AI out there, is that it could harness the potential of humans to create in essence ‘a super system.’

It won’t just change our world, it could intrinsically change what it means to be human.

How could swarm intelligence change the world around us?

The most common view of artificial swarm intelligence is the idea of thousands of little robots working in tandem to create a staggering array of things, much like Hiro’s microbots in Big Hero 6. (These microbots were actually based on drones made in the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP lab). As Hiro says of his microbots: “The only thing that limits you is your imagination”.

And there are quite a few companies dipping their toes in SI waters, and the projects give us an insight into where this technology could go.


Dobots is a Dutch company whose mission is to “to develop robots that make life better.”  Their overarching goal is to make a smart building, and one of the facets of that are cleaning robots:

One of our aims is to attach a number of different sensors to the robot that are not optimized individually, but which will be used as a composite by the algorithms, trying to catch one sensor’s weaknesses with the other one’s strengths

The robots will be able to sense where the others are. If they are vacuuming, they could be programmed to ensure that they all aren’t going to the same room at the same time and that they can map routes out so that the maximum amount of space is covered in the most economic way.


One of the other very obvious applications is military and defence. From its earliest inception, people have studied the algorithms found in swarm behaviour could be replication for warfare.

Here in Australia researchers at the University of South Australia are currently working on developing new algorithms modelled on the neurobiology of a fly  to enhance Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV), a type of military robot that have the capability to autonomously travel where it could be too dangerous for a soldier to travel. This could have a number of applications including:

  • Surveillance
  • disabling bombs
  • Repair itself or other robots
  • Aid the wounded

In the US, they have been developing a program called CODE (Collaborate Operations in Denied Environment) The ultimate purpose of this program is to develop a drone army that a single person could control.

This kind of technology could have both enormously positive and negative outcomes and has caused concern amongst human rights groups.

How could it inherently change us?

And these groups voice an unspoken concern humanity has about technology. Either that it will fall into the wrong hands with catastrophic results or that that at some point humanity could lose control and we will find ourselves trying to outrun our Frankenstein.

Interestingly, if SI is the scourge of humanity, it could also be its saviour:

“Ninety-nine percent of AI currently being developed is about replacing and ultimately exceeding human intelligence. Ours is different. It’s about amplifying human intelligence.”

This could be done by ensuring that humans are part of the technological loop. If you have humans as part of that process. As Louis Rosenberg CEO of Unanimous AI puts it:

Although heavily reliant on hardware and software, swarming keeps human sensibilities and moralities as an integral part of the processes. As a result, this “human-in-the-loop” approach to AI combines the benefits of computational infrastructure and software efficiencies with the unique values that each person brings to the table: creativity, empathy, morality, and justice. And because swarm-based intelligence is rooted in human input, the resulting intelligence is far more likely to be aligned with humanity – not just with our values and morals, but also with our goals and objectives.”

If we could integrate ourselves (ourselves in the most collective sense) into the processes then we could ensure that we are working in tandem with technology, rather than against it.

Technology itself won’t just affect the way we live, the way its advancing could completely alter our brains, the way we interact with our surroundings and each other, and our very sense of self.

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