For some seconds, just imagine having these 50 m² – 8 meters tall artifact constructed (above) by tiny Giant Architects in a plaza over a big city near you. Over this youtube video several scientists have filled the big city unearthed with 10 tens of cement during 3 days. Then calmly (taking several weeks), have digg it to the bone. To have a clue on what I mean just imagine having all these at Times Square plaza in New York! or at the front-door of the Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (in fact a giant spider is also there – check photo below). Colonies of eu-social insects use stigmergy in order to do this, being a good reference the work done by Karsai back in 1999 at the Artificial Life MIT Press Journal (here is the abstract – unfornately I have it on paper but not scanned):
# István Karsai, “Decentralized Control of Construction Behavior in Paper Wasps: An Overview of the Stigmergy Approach“, Spring 1999, Vol. 5, No. 2, Pages 117-136.
Grassé  coined the term stigmergy (previous work directs and triggers new building actions) to describe a mechanism of decentralized pathway of information flow in social insects. In general, all kinds of multi-agent groups require coordination for their effort and it seems that stigmergy is a very powerful means to coordinate activity over great spans of time and space in a wide variety of systems. In a situation in which many individuals contribute to a collective effort, such as building a nest, stimuli provided by the emerging structure itself can provide a rich source of information for the working insects. The current article provides a detailed review of this stigmergic paradigm in the building behavior of paper wasps to show how stigmergy influenced the understanding of mechanisms and evolution of a particular biological system. The most important feature to understand is how local stimuli are organized in space and time to ensure the emergence of a coherent adaptive structure and to explain how workers could act independently yet respond to stimuli provided through the common medium of the environment of the colony.
Another interesting paper (available online) is the more recent work by Mason at the 8th Artificial Life conference, in 2002. Below I have selected part of the introductory text:
# Zachary Mason ,”Programming with Stigmergy: Using Swarms for Construction“, in Artificial Life VIII Conf., Standish, Abbass, Bedau (eds)(MIT Press), New South Wales, Australia, pp. 371-375, 2002.
(…) Termite nests are large and complex. A nest may be as much as 104 or 105 times as large as an individual termite (Boneabeau et al. 1997) a ratio unparalleled in the animal kingdom. The nests of the African termite sub-family Macrotermitinae are composed of many substructures, such as protective bulwarks, pillared brood chambers, spiral cooling vents, galleries of fungus gardens and royal chambers. For all the architectural sophistication of termite nests, termites themselves are blind, weak and apparently not responsive to a coordinating authority. This work attempts to borrow and generalize the termite construction-algorithm, permitting artificial, decentralized swarms to be programmed to build complex, composable structures.
How do small, blind termites manage to build (relatively) huge, intricate nests? Work on this question includes a simple, decentralized building model (Grasse 1959) (Grasse 1984), an empirical study of termite building behavior (Bruinsma 1979), a mathematical model of the synthesis of pillars in termite nests (Deneubourg 1977), and a model explaining how modest environmental variation can cause the same termite behaviors to generate qualitatively different structures (Boneabeau et al. 1997). Most relevant to this work is (Bruinsma 1979), which records three feedback mechanisms governing termite behavior. In the first, a termite picks up a soil pellet, masticates it into a paste and injects a termiteattracting pheremone into it. When the pellet is deposited, the pheremone stimulates nearby termites to pellet-gathering behavior and makes them more likely to deposit their pellets nearby. Second, small obstacles in the terrain stimulate pellet deposits and can seed pillars. Finally, a trail pheremone allows more workers to be drawn to a construction site. Termites and many social insects interact stigmergically – that is, communication is mediated through changes in the environment rather than direct signal transmission. Computer simulations have used stigmergy to reproduce termite’s pillar-making behavior and ant’s foraging and the spontaneous cemetery building. These applications rely of qualitative stigmergy | individual agents react to a continuous variations in the environment. An example of quantitative stigmergy is (G. Theraulaz 1995), a simulation of wasp nest building. Wasps build nests by depositing cells on a lattice. Whether an empty cell is lled depends on the adjacent cells. Because all wasps have the same deposit-triggers, multiple wasps are able to simultaneously work on a single nest without without ruining each others work. A set of deposit-triggers is coherent if each no stage in the building process can be confused with an earlier stage by making only local observations, thus obviating the need for centralized control.
The goal of this work is to generalize the construction methodologies of the social insects and create a language for stigmergically assembling complex structures. Such a language permit swarms of agents to erect interesting architectures without benefit of a central controller or explicit inter-agent communication. The primary advantage of this approach is that stigmergically controlled swarms have minimal communication and no coordination overhead. Also, very little processing is demanded of agents, and the swarm can tolerate a degree of agent error. On a more abstract plane, this work is an example of designing emergent behavior. (…)