Many animals seem to survive better when working together. In several canine species, such as wolves and jackals, living and hunting in a pack enables co-operation in looking after the young or the wounded, or in bringing down prey. It’s often argued that our own ancestors’ ability to function in a group was all part of achieving the better communication which took us to where we are today.
Operating in very large groups can be essential to the survival of some species. When living in a herd or flock, many pairs of eyes are much better than one when searching for food or looking out for predators. In his 1985 book Bird Behaviour, the zoologist Robert Burton explains that research shows some birds being several times more likely to be killed when alone than when in a flock. A flock’s early warning system is better and a group can sometimes turn around and attack a predator. There’s safety in numbers, all of which allows more time to be devoted to feeding and reproducing.
This behaviour is seen in many birds, fish and mammals, but it may be best seen on the large scale primarily in terms of the actions of insects. A swarm of insects, aggregating in a vast group to travel, feed and even represent a threat to ourselves, is a concept which (without wishing to sound too anthropomorphic) gives them a power immensely beyond that of any individual member of the swarm. Face up to one wasp and you might feel a bit wary – a swarm is quite a different matter.
Such are the survival advantages of these behaviour patterns that we must expect extraterrestrial species to have developed them also. And not only might this arise through some alien process of natural selection – it might also be the deliberate consequence of engineering the future.
The principles of swarming are already used extensively in robotics research in order to co-ordinate large numbers of similar, and fairly simple, robots to perform some overall task. The individuals communicate with one another and, through continuous feedback and interaction, are intended develop a form of swarm intelligence. When accompanied by the advantages from improvements in nanotechnology, the potential for swarming microscopic robots is enormous, as K Eric Drexler made clear in his 1986 book, updated in 2007, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.
But the threat is clear as well. In his 2002 science fiction novel Prey, Michael Crichton describes a situation where the development of microrobots, designed to reproduce and learn in a way that evolves a version of swarm intelligence frighteningly quickly, gets out of control. Once they escape from their containment, and given that their programming compels the members of the swarm to behave as predators, the prospects for humanity are dire.
Crichton offers a clear warning in the introduction to his novel. Speaking of such microrobots, he hoped that “by the time they emerge, we will have settled upon international controls for self-reproducing technologies.” But if we don’t, or if someone creates “artificial self-reproducing organisms far sooner than anyone expected”, the risks indicated in his novel could be all too real. At the time he was writing, nanotechnology was already being used in various areas of engineering, mainly materials technology, but the scope has increased since then and will continue to do so.
Once we have microscopic robots demonstrating swarm intelligence, as might well be inevitable from the way things are going, our own status could look increasingly grim. And so it might have been for other races in the galaxy when approaching a similar level of technology – swarm mentality could be the norm, whether through natural or artificial means, and individual behaviour may be the exception. If we ever meet such a swarm, it could pose quite a challenge to our own survival.
Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)