A biological way to think about information, systems, people and collaboration
A simple example
Imagine you wanted to create a collaborative system to produce an information resource - perhaps for the search engine optimization of a Web site. Somewhere in a Hilbert space there would be a perfect system to do this. How do you go about finding this system, using the same strategy as Nature?
First you'd set up a system whereby people could add links to create an information resource. You'd provide instructions and a metaphor to describe how the collaborative system will work.
If you haven't yet looked at the example you might want do do so now, before continuing : Example.
You wouldn't have to get this exactly right when you first set it up, because the participants, the metaphor and the instructions can be viewed as the parameters of a Hilbert space. These are the unknown variables, that can cause the system to work in a variety of different ways and with a variety of different efficiencies.
In this Hilbert space, all possible ways the system could perform would be present, from abject failure to spectacular success. The idea is that although you won't know what the best parameters are from the start, these will take shape as the system evolves.
Such a system is shown in the example. It is only in a demo form, so it hasn't been put to the test yet, but it should illustrate the basic principles.
The idea is not to think about how to redesign this example system to make it work better, but to think about how the system can be arranged to move around in a Hilbert space to where it will be working most efficiently. In other words, how can the system be arranged to self-organize and find its own best parameter set.
As the main parameters of the system are people.What we are contemplating here is a system that will find a a suitable group of people whose collaborative activity will make the system perform efficiently.
Notice that although the purpose of this example is to build an information resource, the main strategy is concerned with creating an efficient system of collaboration. The information resource emerges as an outcome if this is successful.
As surprising as it may seem, self-organization occurs when you expose a system in a steady state to an environment that can destabilize it. This is because by disturbing a steady state you might cause it to take up a new steady state where it is working more efficiently.
It is only in the last couple of decades that a full understanding of biological self-organization has been discovered through the observation of dynamic complex systems running on computers. It was noticed that unstable systems (systems acting chaotically) never remain unstable. Nature makes use of this phenomenon by creating systems that are always on the borderline of stability so that they can easily be tipped into a new, possible better, steady state.
Self-organization will occur if you have a system that has a mechanism that can destabilize it, and a complementary mechanism that will prevent it from staying in a new steady state if it becomes less efficient (but allows it to stay in the new steady state if it becomes more efficient).
This is the way all biological organisms manage to evolve or adapt to take up progressively more efficient forms - or remain in a form that is optimally efficient.
How stigmergy comes into it
Stigmergy is a process whereby individuals interact with an environment by making changes to it. The changes they make prompt other individuals to make different changes. Changes drive changes and this can cause unpredictable (and destabilizing) effects.
The example illustrates this effect. When people add links to a collection of links it prompts others to do the same. But, they won't add the same links, they'll add links that extend the range of the links or add links that provide alternatives or improvements.
However, if a random assortment of people are allowed to keep adding links, the resource can easily deteriorate to a state where it is inefficient to use. But, this destabilizing activity is essential, because it is also causing the system to become increasingly more comprehensive.
This is how stigmergy works. The activity is the cause of both the deterioration and the improvements, which in terms of Hilbert space is the cause of the system moving to different positions - where it is either more or less efficient.
This is the dilemma faced by all biological systems. The effects that cause them to become less efficient are also the effects that enable them to evolve into more efficient forms. Nature solves this problem with its evolutionary strategy of selecting for the fittest. This strategy makes sure that progress is always in a positive direction only.
Making the system more efficient
The example allows participants to create their own list of links from a pool of links. This is the equivalent of creating a new organism with a new set of genes, or a new set of parameters for a system. It is a selection process that separates out the good from the bad.
However, the selection process is such that selections are made on the basis of choosing groups of selections - groups that have been contributed by a particular person. In other words the selection is made on the basis of people and their contributions - rather than selecting for the value of the links themselves. This distinction is critical because it means the system is evolving on the basis of increasingly better participants and personal efforts.
In terms of Hilbert space, the dimensions are not links to information, but people. And the system is moving towards a place where the best contributors are to be found.
How the system can grow
If you think about such a system in a conventional way, you would know that a resource building system of this kind would start off with a very weak group of participants. But, if people start to notice and use such a collaborative resource, more people would be inclined to add contributions. This would lead to more people using it, which in turn would lead to further contributions and participation.
In this way, the system could grow exponentially, from very small beginnings. This is the classic evolutionary growth pattern seen in all biological systems.
Conventional thinking would see this as a system to attract and draw participants to a collaborative project. But, in terms of Hilbert space it is doing something that would seem to be impossible - being able to steer through Hilbert space to find a suitable group of people who could work collaboratively together to build an information resource for the optimization of a Web site.
It is through making this paradigm shift that the marvel of Nature's evolutionary strategy is revealed. Once the idea clicks into place, it becomes apparent how the strategy can be used in all kinds of situations that involve collaboration.
Other similar systems, with different sets of categories, can be used to move around a Hilbert space to find groups of collaborators to build all kinds of different information resources or many other kinds of project.
This paper is only one way of describing how biological strategies can be used in information technology. There are other ways described in the references section of this site. There, also, you'll find articles, tutorials and links to more detail about the theory and technical aspects. You'll see how agent technology is used to put these biological strategies into effect. You'll find descriptions of the way biological strategies can be used to design websites.
If this paper has achieved its purpose - of turning you on to the potential of using biological strategies - you might find many other parts of this site interesting.
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