Scott_brave_headshot_JPGAnts are pretty dumb creatures.  Watch one, all by itself for a few minutes and you’ll quickly get the impression that it’s wandering around aimlessly.  And you’d pretty much be right.

Ant colonies on the other hand, are brilliant.  There are few organisms on this planet as relentless and efficient in pursuit of their goals of discovering, transporting, and consuming resources.  Just ask anyone here in California who’s had their house invaded by ants during the summer months.

Ants’ behaviors are guided by a fairly simplistic set of rules.  Wander around randomly—all the while dropping a chemical bread-crumb trail that leads back to the ant hill—until you find some food.  When you do, pick it up, and follow your trail back home—all the while laying down a different chemical trail.  Pretty simple.  Put 1000 ants together following only these rules and you get just 1000 ants wandering around randomly with maybe one or two of them getting lucky and actually finding food.  Now just add one more simple rule: if when wandering around randomly you happen to encounter another ant’s chemical “I found food” trail, follow that.  All of the sudden, those 1000 ants transform into something miraculous: a “super organism” that can discover even the most obscured food source, overcome numerous obstacles, and devour resources with uncanny speed and efficiency.  At this macro level of collective action, ant colonies seem quite intelligent.  This phenomenon, known as “emergent behavior” or “emergent intelligence”, has fascinated researchers for years because the behavior that emerges from the collective doesn’t really look much like the behaviors of individuals–it’s not just about adding them up, something new appears whose apparent intelligence is much greater than the sum of the parts.

But emergent intelligence isn’t just for ants:  it’s all around us—and in us!  Take our brains.  Each individual neuron also follows a very simplistic set of rules, and interacts with only a very small subset of other neurons in our brain.  Yet somehow, from the collection of all of them, human intelligence arises.  What about humans as a collective?  Each of us follows a set of rules when interacting in the world and with others.  What collective behavior emerges from us that is more intelligent and of a different nature than the sum of the parts?  Economies perhaps?  Justice?  I’ll let you speculate.  But let me bring it down to something much less philosophical: finding stuff on the web.

People looking for content and products on the web can seem a lot like ants looking for food.  Take a single individual user…  looking for the needed information or product can look a lot like that ant wandering around aimlessly until it finally stumbles upon what it’s looking for.  Sure, we’re more intelligent than ants, and it’s not quite random, but when on our own were not terribly efficient.  What are the chemical trails that we can leave for others, so that collectively we can be much more efficient at finding and exploiting the online resources we need?  Ratings, reviews, and user generated tags are a few approaches, but at Baynote we believe that the process of leaving chemical trails cannot be a choice but must be an implicit outcome of all users’ online behaviors.  Only in this way, can we truly tap into the collective intelligence of the entire group and function as a “super organism” on the web.