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Abstract


This essay is about how animals swarm together and their impact on technology. There is a lot to learn from how groups of simple individuals can combine to form complex and intricate systems. The essay will try to find out how this swarm behaviour can influence and inspire technology, and whether or not there is scope for further advancement in the future.

A field called Swarm Intelligence has arisen in the last thirty years. Its foundations are in the study of swarming animals like birds and insects. Take an ant; on its own it seems to act randomly and without insight. But the colony as a whole tells a different story. The swarm of ants can carry out a wide variety of tasks, despite each ant being very much unaware of its own actions. Each ant follows a small set of simple rules; remarkably these rules have evolved so that organisation and skill at the colony level emerges - there is no chief ant telling the others what to do. These principles are now being used in robotics and computer algorithms to create more robust systems. If the ants don’t have a command and control centre susceptible to attack, why must we?

The essay answers the question ‘How are technological advances inspired by swarming animals’ in four chapters.

The first chapter, What is Swarm Intelligence?, introduces the subject formally and familiarises the reader with what is to come. Ideas about emergence and self-organisation are discussed, as these themes will recur.

The second chapter, Swarms in nature, takes an in depth look at the different varieties of swarming animals. This includes description of the capabilities that come from swarming, as well as analysis of the motives for and consequences of the behaviour. The ideas in this chapter form the foundations of swarm-based technology, so consider it an important grounding. The swarm simulation that I made is also discussed.

The third chapter, The whole greater than the sum of the parts, looks at philosophical thoughts behind the swarm phenomena such as the role that randomness plays, a deeper take on emergence, and the clash between determinism and indeterminism.

The fourth chapter, Applying the principles, takes the ideas from the two preceding chapters, and shows how they might be used (or indeed are being used) to improve our own technology. Whilst the immediate impact that swarm research has had is on computer software, the prospects are still promising for robotics, space exploration and artificial intelligence.

Swarm Intelligence is a new subject and is little known. Currently it is quirky and wayward, but the forecast of where it may take us is magnetic. Given the infant state of swarm robotics, this essay must conclude that there is a large scope for further advancements in swarm-tech in the future. It’s easy to imagine the solar system housing a swarm of space probes, exploring collaboratively. So this essay aims to bring the reader up to speed on both the applications and ideas behind swarm intelligence, with an eye on illuminating its future potential.