Collective intelligence:：Ants and brain's neurons
STANFORD - An individual ant is not very bright, but ants in a colony, operating as a collective, do remarkable things.
A single neuron in the human brain can respond only to what the neurons connected to it are doing, but all of them together can be Immanuel Kant.
That resemblance is why Deborah M. Gordon, StanfordUniversity assistant professor of biological sciences, studies ants.
"I'm interested in the kind of system where simple units together do behave in complicated ways," she said.
No one gives orders in an ant colony, yet each ant decides what to do next.
For instance, an ant may have several job descriptions. When the colony discovers a new source of food, an ant doing housekeeping duty may suddenly become a forager. Or if the colony's territory size expands or contracts, patroller ants change the shape of their reconnaissance pattern to conform to the new realities. Since no one is in charge of an ant colony - including the misnamed "queen," which is simply a breeder - how does each ant decide what to do?
This kind of undirected behavior is not unique to ants, Gordon said. How do birds flying in a flock know when to make a collective right turn? All anchovies and other schooling fish seem to turn in unison, yet no one fish is the leader.
Gordon studies harvester ants in Arizona and, both in the field and in her lab, the so-called Argentine ants that are ubiquitous to coastal California.
Argentine ants came to Louisiana in a sugar shipment in 1908. They were driven out of the Gulf states by the fire ant and invaded California, where they have displaced most of the native ant species. One of the things Gordon is studying is how they did so. No one has ever seen an ant war involving the Argentine species and the native species, so it's not clear whether they are quietly aggressive or just find ways of taking over food resources and territory.
The Argentine ants in her lab also are being studied to help her understand how they change behavior as the size of the space they are exploring varies.
"The ants are good at finding new places to live in and good at finding food," Gordon said. "We're interested in finding out how they do it."
Her ants are confined by Plexiglas walls and a nasty glue-like substance along the tops of the boards that keeps the ants inside. She moves the walls in and out to change the arena and videotapes the ants' movements. A computer tracks each ant from its image on the tape and reads its position so she has a diagram of the ants' activities.
The motions of the ants confirm the existence of a collective.
"A colony is analogous to a brain where there are lots of neurons, each of which can only do something very simple, but together the whole brain can think. None of the neurons can think ant, but the brain can think ant, though nothing in the brain told that neuron to think ant."
For instance, ants scout for food in a precise pattern. What happens when that pattern no longer fits the circumstances, such as when Gordon moves the walls?
"Ants communicate by chemicals," she said. "That's how they mostly perceive the world; they don't see very well. They use their antennae to smell. So to smell something, they have to get very close to it.
"The best possible way for ants to find everything - if you think of the colony as an individual that is trying to do this - is to have an ant everywhere all the time, because if it doesn't happen close to an ant, they're not going to know about it. Of course, there are not enough ants in the colony to do that, so somehow the ants have to move around in a pattern that allows them to cover space efficiently."
Keeping in mind that no one is in charge of a colony and that there is no central plan, how do the ants adjust their reconnaissance if their territory expands or shrinks?
"No ant told them, 'OK, guys, if the arena is 20 by 20. . . .' Somehow there has to be some rule that individual ants use in deciding to change the shape of their paths so they cover the areas effectively. I think that that rule is the rate in which they bump into each other."
The more crowded they are, the more often each ant will bump into another ant. If the area of their territory is expanded, the frequency of contact decreases. Perhaps, Gordon thinks, each ant has a threshold for normality and adjusts its path shape depending on how often the number of encounters exceeds or falls short of that threshold.
If the territory shrinks, the number of contacts increases and the ant alters its search pattern. If it expands, contact decreases and it alters the pattern a different way.
In the Arizona harvester ants, Gordon studies tasks besides patrolling. Each ant has a job.
"I divide the tasks into four: foraging, nest maintenance, midden [piling refuse, including husks of seeds] and patrolling - patrollers are the ones that come out first in the morning and look for food. The foragers go where the patrollers find food.
"The colony has about eight different foraging paths. Every day it uses several of them. The patrollers go out first on the trails and they attract each other when they find food. By the end of an hour's patrolling, most patrollers are on just a few trails. . . . All the foragers have to do is go where there are the most patrollers."
Each ant has its prescribed task, but the ants can switch tasks if the collective needs it. An ant on housekeeping duty will decide to forage. No one told it to do so and Gordon and other entomologists don't know how that happens.
"No ant can possibly know how much food everybody is collecting, how many foragers are needed," she said. "An ant has to have very simple rules that tell it, 'OK, switch and start foraging.' But an ant can't assess globally how much food the colony needs.
"I've done perturbation experiments in which I marked ants according to what task they're doing on a given day. The ants that were foraging for food were green, those that were cleaning the nest were blue and so on. Then I created some new situation in the environment; for example, I create a mess that the nest maintenance workers have to clean up or I'll put out extra food that attracts more foragers.
"It turns out that ants that were marked doing a certain task one day switch to do a different task when conditions change."
Of about 8,000 species of ants, only about 10 percent have been studied thus far.
"It's hard to generalize anything about the behavior of ants," Gordon said. "Most of what we know about ants is true of a very, very small number of species compared to the number of species out there."
HOW IQ BECOMES IQ
In 1904 the French minister of education, facing limited resources for schooling, sought a way to separate the unable from the merely lazy. Alfred Binet got the job of devising selection principles and his brilliant solution put a stamp on the study of intelligence and was the forerunner of intelligence tests still used today. He developed a thirty-problem test in 1905, which tapped several abilities related to intellect, such as judgment and reasoning. The test determined a given child's mental age'. The test previously established a norm for children of a given physical age. For example, five-year-olds on average get ten items correct, therefore, a child with a mental age of five should score 10, which would mean that he or she was functioning pretty much as others of that age. The child's mental age was then compared to his physical age.
A large disparity in the wrong direction (e.g., a child of nine with a mental age of four) might suggest inability rather than laziness and means that he or she was earmarked for special schooling. Binet, however, denied that the test was measuring intelligence and said that its purpose was simply diagnostic, for selection only. This message was however lost and caused many problems and misunderstandings later.
Although Binet's test was popular, it was a bit inconvenient to deal with a variety of physical and mental ages. So, in 1912, Wilhelm Stern suggested simplifying this by reducing the two to a single number. He divided the mental age by the physical age and multiplied the result by 100. An average child, irrespective of age, would score 100. a number much lower than 100 would suggest the need for help and one much higher would suggest a child well ahead of his peer.
This measurement is what is now termed the IQ (intelligence quotient) score and it has evolved to be used to show how a person, adult or child, performed in relation to others. The term IQ was coined by Lewis m. Terman, professor of psychology and education of Stanford University, in 1916. He had constructed an enormously influential revision of Binet's test, called the Stanford-Binet test, versions of which are still given extensively.
The field studying intelligence and developing tests eventually coalesced into a sub-field of psychology called psychometrics (psycho for ‘mind' and metrics for 'measurements'). The practical side of psychometrics (the development and use of tests) became widespread quite early, by 1917, when Einstein published his grand theory of relativity, mass-scale testing was already in use.
Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare (which led to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915) provoked the United States to finally enter the first world war in the same year. The military had to build up an army very quickly and it had two million inductees to sort out. Who would become officers and who enlisted men? Psychometricians developed two intelligence tests that helped sort all these people out, at least to some extent. This was the first major use of testing to decide who lived and who died since officers were a lot safer on the battlefield. The tests themselves were given under horrendously bad conditions and the examiners seemed to lack common sense. A lot of recruits simply had no idea what to do and in several sessions most inductees scored zero! The examiners also came up with the quite astounding conclusion from the testing that the average American adult's intelligence was equal to that of a thirteen-year-old!
Nevertheless, the ability for various authorities to classify people on scientifically justifiable premises was too convenient and significant to be dismissed lightly, so with all good astounding intentions and often over enthusiasm, society's affinity for psychological testing proliferated.
Back in Europe, Sir Cyril Burt, professor of psychology at University College London from 1931 to 1950, was a prominent figure for his contribution to the field. He was a firm advocate of intelligence testing and his ideas fitted in well with English cultural ideas of elitism. A government committee in 1943 used some of Burt's ideas in devising a rather primitive typology on children's intellectual behavior. All were tested at age eleven and the top 15 or 20 per cent went to grammar schools with good teachers and a fast pace of work to prepare for the few university places available. A lot of very bright working-class children, who otherwise would never have succeeded, made it to grammar schools and universities.
The system for the rest was however disastrous. These children attended lesser secondary or technical schools and faced the prospect of eventual education oblivion. They felt like dumb failures, which having been officially and scientifically branded. No wonder their motivation to study plummeted. It was not until 1974 that the public education system was finally reformed. Nowadays it is believed that Burt has fabricated a lot of his data. Having an obsession that intelligence is largely genetic, he apparently made up twin studies, which supported this idea, at the same time inventing two co-workers who were supposed to have gathered the results.
Intelligence testing enforced political and social prejudice and their results were used to argue that Jews ought to be kept out of the United States because they were so intelligently inferior that they would pollute the racial mix. And blacks ought not to be allowed to breed at all. Abuse and test bias controversies continued to plaque psychometrics.
Measurement is fundamental to science and technology. Science often advances in leaps and bounds when measurement devices improve. Psychometrics has long tried to develop ways to gauge psychological qualities such as intelligence and more specific abilities, anxiety, extroversion, emotional stability, compatibility with marriage partner and so on. Their scores are often given enormous weight. A single IQ measurement can take on a life of its own if teachers and parents see it as definitive. It became a major issue in the 70s when court cases were launched to stop anyone from making important decisions based on IQ test scores. the main criticism was and still is that current tests don't really measure intelligence. Whether intelligence can be measured at all is still controversial. some say it cannot while others say that IQ tests are psychology's greatest accomplishments.