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Figure – A swarm cognitive map (pheromone spatial distribution map) in 3D, at a specific time t. The artificial ant colony was evolved within 2 digital grey images based on the following work. The real physical “thing” can be seen here.

[] Vitorino Ramos, The MC2 Project [Machines of Collective Conscience]: A possible walk, up to Life-like Complexity and Behaviour, from bottom, basic and simple bio-inspired heuristics – a walk, up into the morphogenesis of information, UTOPIA Biennial Art Exposition, Cascais, Portugal, July 12-22, 2001.

Synergy (from the Greek word synergos), broadly defined, refers to combined or co-operative effects produced by two or more elements (parts or individuals). The definition is often associated with the holistic conviction quote that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Aristotle, in Metaphysics), or the whole cannot exceed the sum of the energies invested in each of its parts (e.g. first law of thermodynamics) even if it is more accurate to say that the functional effects produced by wholes are different from what the parts can produce alone. Synergy is a ubiquitous phenomena in nature and human societies alike. One well know example is provided by the emergence of self-organization in social insects, via direct (mandibular, antennation, chemical or visual contact, etc) or indirect interactions. The latter types are more subtle and defined as stigmergy to explain task coordination and regulation in the context of nest reconstruction in Macrotermes termites. An example, could be provided by two individuals, who interact indirectly when one of them modifies the environment and the other responds to the new environment at a later time. In other words, stigmergy could be defined as a particular case of environmental or spatial synergy. Synergy can be viewed as the “quantity” with respect to which the whole differs from the mere aggregate. Typically these systems form a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, sociological, or psychological phenomena, so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable from its parts in summation (i.e. non-linear) – Gestalt in one word (the English word more similar is perhaps system, configuration or whole). The system is purely holistic, and their properties are intrinsically emergent and auto-catalytic.

A typical example could be found in some social insect societies, namely in ant colonies. Coordination and regulation of building activities on these societies do not depend on the workers themselves but are mainly achieved by the nest structure: a stimulating configuration triggers the response of a termite worker, transforming the configuration into another configuration that may trigger in turn another (possibly different) action performed by the same termite or any other worker in the colony. Recruitment of social insects for particular tasks is another case of stigmergy. Self-organized trail laying by individual ants is a way of modifying the environment to communicate with nest mates that follow such trails. It appears that task performance by some workers decreases the need for more task performance: for instance, nest cleaning by some workers reduces the need for nest cleaning. Therefore, nest mates communicate to other nest mates by modifying the environment (cleaning the nest), and nest mates respond to the modified environment (by not engaging in nest cleaning).

Swarms of social insects construct trails and networks of regular traffic via a process of pheromone (a chemical substance) laying and following. These patterns constitute what is known in brain science as a cognitive map. The main differences lies in the fact that insects write their spatial memories in the environment, while the mammalian cognitive map lies inside the brain, further justified by many researchers via a direct comparison with the neural processes associated with the construction of cognitive maps in the hippocampus.

But by far more crucial to the present project, is how ants form piles of items such as dead bodies (corpses), larvae, or grains of sand. There again, stigmergy is at work: ants deposit items at initially random locations. When other ants perceive deposited items, they are stimulated to deposit items next to them, being this type of cemetery clustering organization and brood sorting a type of self-organization and adaptive behaviour, being the final pattern of object sptial distribution a reflection of what the colony feels and thinks about that objects, as if they were another organism (a meta- global organism).

As forecasted by Wilson [E.O. Wilson. The Insect Societies, Belknam Press, Cambridge, 1971], our understanding of individual insect behaviour together with the sophistication with which we will able to analyse their collective interaction would advance to the point were we would one day posses a detailed, even quantitative, understanding of how individual “probability matrices” (their tendencies, feelings and inner thoughts) would lead to mass action at the level of the colony (society), that is a truly “stochastic theory of mass behaviour” where the reconstruction of mass behaviours is possible from the behaviours of single colony members, and mainly from the analysis of relationships found at the basic level of interactions.

The idea behind the MC2 Machine is simple to transpose for the first time, the mammalian cognitive map, to a environmental (spatial) one, allowing the recognition of what happens when a group of individuals (humans) try to organize different abstract concepts (words) in one habitat (via internet). Even if each of them is working alone in a particular sub-space of that “concept” habitat, simply rearranging notions at their own will, mapping “Sameness” into “Neighborness“, not recognizing the whole process occurring simultaneously on their society, a global collective-conscience emerges. Clusters of abstract notions emerge, exposing groups of similarity among the different concepts. The MC2 machine is then like a mirror of what happens inside the brain of multiple individuals trying to impose their own conscience onto the group.

Through a Internet site reflecting the “words habitat”, the users (humans) choose, gather and reorganize some types of words and concepts. The overall movements of these word-objects are then mapped into a public space. Along this process, two shifts emerge: the virtual becomes the reality, and the personal subjective and disperse beliefs become onto a social and politically significant element. That is, perception and action only by themselves can evolve adaptive and flexible problem-solving mechanisms, or emerge communication among many parts. The whole and their behaviours (i.e., the next layer in complexity – our social significant element) emerges from the relationship of many parts, even if these later are acting strictly within and according to any sub-level of basic and simple strategies, ad-infinitum repeated.

The MC2 machine will reveal then what happens in many real world situations; cooperation among individuals, altruism, egoism, radicalism, and also the resistance to that radicalism, memory of that society on some extreme positions on time, but the inevitable disappearance of that positions, to give rise to the convergence to the group majority thought (Common-sense?), eliminating good or bad relations found so far, among in our case, words and abstract notions. Even though the machine composed of many human-parts will “work” within this restrict context, she will reveal how some relationships among notions in our society (ideas) are only possible to be found, when and only when simple ones are found first (the minimum layer of complexity), neglecting possible big steps of a minority group of visionary individuals. Is there (in our society) any need for a critical mass of knowledge, in order to achieve other layers of complexity? Roughly, she will reveal for instance how democracies can evolve and die on time, as many things in our impermanent world.

From the author of “Rock, Paper, Scissors – Game Theory in everyday life” dedicated to evolution of cooperation in nature (published last year – Basic Books), a new book on related areas is now fresh on the stands (released Dec. 7,  2009): “The Perfect Swarm – The Science of Complexity in everyday life“. This time Len Fischer takes us into the realm of our interlinked modern lives, where complexity rules. But complexity also has rules. Understand these, and we are better placed to make sense of the mountain of data that confronts us every day.  Fischer ranges far and wide to discover what tips the science of complexity has for us. Studies of human (one good example is Gum voting) and animal behaviour, management science, statistics and network theory all enter the mix.

One of the greatest discoveries of recent times is that the complex patterns we find in life are often produced when all of the individuals in a group follow similar simple rules. Even if the final pattern is complex, rules are not. This process of “Self-Organization” reveals itself in the inanimate worlds of crystals and seashells, but as Len Fisher shows, it is also evident in living organisms, from fish to ants to human beings, being Stigmergy one among many cases of this type of Self-Organized behaviour, encompassing applications in several Engineering fields like Computer science and Artificial Intelligence, Data-Mining, Pattern Recognition, Image Analysis and Perception, Robotics, Optimization, Learning, Forecasting, etc. Since I do work on these precise areas, you may find several of my previous posts dedicated to these issues, such as Self-Organized Data and Image Retrieval systemsStigmergic Optimization, Computer-based Adaptive Dynamic Perception, Swarm-based Data MiningSelf-regulated Swarms and Memory, Ant based Data Clustering, Generative computer-based photography and painting, Classification, Extreme Dynamic Optimization, Self-Organized Pattern Recognition, among other applications.

For instance, the coordinated movements of fish in schools, arise from the simple rule: “Follow the fish in front.” Traffic flow arises from simple rules: “Keep your distance” and “Keep to the right.” Now, in his new book, Fisher shows how we can manage our complex social lives in an ever more chaotic world. His investigation encompasses topics ranging from “swarm intelligence” (check links above) to the science of parties (a beautiful example by ICOSYSTEM inc.) and the best ways to start a fad. Finally, Fisher sheds light on the beauty and utility of complexity theory. For those willing to understand a miriad of some basic examples (Fischer gaves us 33 nice food-for-thought examples in total) and to have a well writen introduction into this thrilling new branch of science, referred by Stephen Hawking as the science for the current century (“I think complexity is the science for the 21st century”), Perfect Swarm will be indeed an excelent companion.

Figure – My first Swarm Painting SP0016 (Jan. 2002). This was done attaching the following algorithm into a robotic drawing arm. In order to do it however, pheromone distribution by the overall ant colony were carefully coded into different kinds of colors and several robotic pencils (check “The MC2 Project [Machines of Collective Conscience]“, 2001, and “On the Implicit and on the Artificial“, 2002). On the same year when the computational model appeared (2000) the concept was already extended into photography (check original paper) – using the pheromone distribution as photograms (“Einstein to Map” in the original article along with works like “Kafka to Red Ants” as well as subsequent newspaper articles). Meanwhile, in 2003, I was invited to give an invited talk over these at the 1st Art & Science Symposium in Bilbao (below). Even if I was already aware of Jeffrey Ventrella outstanding work as well as Ezequiel Di Paolo, it was there where we first met physically.

[] Vitorino Ramos, Self-Organizing the Abstract: Canvas as a Swarm Habitat for Collective Memory, Perception and Cooperative Distributed Creativity, in 1st Art & Science Symposium – Models to Know Reality, J. Rekalde, R. Ibáñez and Á. Simó (Eds.), pp. 59, Facultad de Bellas Artes EHU/UPV, Universidad del País Vasco, 11-12 Dec., Bilbao, Spain, 2003.

Many animals can produce very complex intricate architectures that fulfil numerous functional and adaptive requirements (protection from predators, thermal regulation, substrate of social life and reproductive activities, etc). Among them, social insects are capable of generating amazingly complex functional patterns in space and time, although they have limited individual abilities and their behaviour exhibits some degree of randomness. Among all activities by social insects, nest building, cemetery organization and collective sorting, is undoubtedly the most spectacular, as it demonstrates the greatest difference between individual and collective levels. Trying to answer how insects in a colony coordinate their behaviour in order to build these highly complex architectures, scientists assumed a first hypothesis, anthropomorphism, i.e., individual insects were assumed to possess a representation of the global structure to be produced and to make decisions on the basis of that representation. Nest complexity would then result from the complexity of the insect’s behaviour. Insect societies, however, are organized in a way that departs radically from the anthropomorphic model in which there is a direct causal relationship between nest complexity and behavioural complexity. Recent works suggests that a social insect colony is a decentralized system composed of cooperative, autonomous units that are distributed in the environment, exhibit simple probabilistic stimulus-response behaviour, and have only access to local information. According to these studies at least two low-level mechanisms play a role in the building activities of social insects: Self-organization and discrete Stigmergy, being the latter a kind of indirect and environmental synergy. Based on past and present stigmergic models, and on the underlying scientific research on Artificial Ant Systems and Swarm Intelligence, while being systems capable of emerging a form of collective intelligence, perception and Artificial Life, done by Vitorino Ramos, and on further experiences in collaboration with the plastic artist Leonel Moura, we will show results facing the possibility of considering as “art”, as well, the resulting visual expression of these systems. Past experiences under the designation of “Swarm Paintings” conducted in 2001, not only confirmed the possibility of realizing an artificial art (thus non-human), as introduced into the process the questioning of creative migration, specifically from the computer monitors to the canvas via a robotic harm. In more recent self-organized based research we seek to develop and profound the initial ideas by using a swarm of autonomous robots (ARTsBOT project 2002-03), that “live” avoiding the purpose of being merely a simple perpetrator of order streams coming from an external computer, but instead, that actually co-evolve within the canvas space, acting (that is, laying ink) according to simple inner threshold stimulus response functions, reacting simultaneously to the chromatic stimulus present in the canvas environment done by the passage of their team-mates, as well as by the distributed feedback, affecting their future collective behaviour. In parallel, and in what respects to certain types of collective systems, we seek to confirm, in a physically embedded way, that the emergence of order (even as a concept) seems to be found at a lower level of complexity, based on simple and basic interchange of information, and on the local dynamic of parts, who, by self-organizing mechanisms tend to form an lived whole, innovative and adapting, allowing for emergent open-ended creative and distributed production.

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 [26] 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. (…)

Vitorino Ramos at Bairro Alto taken by Joao Bracourt (9/2003)

Back in 2003 I was photographed by João Bracourt, a friend and professional photograph which among other things (web design + painting) travels around the world within big professional surf events (he is right now on it’s way to Indonesia), covering it for main surf magazines. Back then (Sept. 2003) we were enjoying ourselves with a big group late nigth at Bairro Alto, the main bar and restaurant district in Lisbon.

The t-shirt I’m wearing here is from COSI – Complexity in Social Sciences Summer School. One month earlier have been invited among other people to give a lecture in Spain about my work, there at COSI (Baeza, Andaluzia). After all these years the PPT file (Stigmergy as a possible exploratory walk up to collective life-like complexity and behaviour) is still available. As well as those from Gerard Weisbuch (Research Director of the Complex Networks and Cognitive Systems Team within the Statistical Physics Laboratory of the l’Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France) and Rosaria Conte (head of the Division of Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Modelling & Interaction at the Institute of Psychology of the Italian National Research Council), among others. Many other research materials concerning complexity and social sciences are still available at COSI’s 2003 main site.

Vitorino Ramos at Bairro Alto taken by Joao Bracourt (9/2003)

(at Bairro Alto, Lisbon, Sept. 2003 – taken by João Bracourt)

Vitorino Ramos at Bairro Alto taken by Joao Bracourt (9/2003)

(at Bairro Alto, Lisbon, Sept. 2003 – taken by João Bracourt)



Transition behavior of one Artificial Ant Colony in presence of a sudden change in his artificial digital image Habitat, between two different Digital Grey Images (face of Einstein and a Map). Created with an Artificial Ant Colony, that uses images as Habitats, being sensible to their gray levels [in, V. Ramos, F. Almeida, “Artificial Ant Colonies in Digital Image Habitats – a mass behavior effect study on Pattern Recognition“, ANTS’00 Conf., Brussels, Belgium, 2000].

After “Einstein face” is injected as a substrate at t=0, 100 iterations occur. At this point you could recognize the face. Then, a new substrate (a new “environmental condition”) is imposed (Map image). The colony then adapts quickly to this new situation, losing their collective memory of past contours.

In white, the higher levels of pheromone (a chemical evaporative sugar substance used by swarms on their orientation trough out the trails). It’s exactly this artificial evaporation and the computational ant collective group synergy reallocating their upgrades of pheromone at interesting places, that allows for the emergence of adaptation and “perception” of new images. Only some of the 6000 iterations processed are represented. The system does not have any type of hierarchy, and ants communicate only in indirect forms, through out the successive alteration that they found on the Habitat. If you however, inject Einstein image again as a substrate, the whole ant society will converge again to it, but much faster than the first time, due to the residual memory distributed in the environment.

As a whole, the system is constantly trying to establish a proper compromise between memory (past solutions – via pheromone reinforcement) and novel ones in order to adapt (new conditions on the habitat, through pheromone evaporation). The right compromise, ables the system to tackle two contradictory situations: keeping some memory while learning something radically new. Antagonist features such as exploration and exploitation are tackled this way.

[] Vitorino Ramos, Filipe Almeida, Artificial Ant Colonies in Digital Image Habitats – A Mass Behaviour Effect Study on Pattern Recognition, Proceedings of ANTS´2000 – 2nd International Workshop on Ant Algorithms (From Ant Colonies to Artificial Ants), Marco Dorigo, Martin Middendorf & Thomas Stüzle (Eds.), pp. 113-116, Brussels, Belgium, 7-9 Sep. 2000.

Figure - Transition behaviour of one Artificial Ant Colony in presence of a sudden change in his artificial digital image Habitat, between two different Digital Grey Images. Created with an Artificial Ant Colony, that uses images as Habitats, being sensible to their gray levels. At the second row, Kafka image is replaced as a substrate, by Red Ant. In black, the higher levels of pheromone (a chemical evaporative sugar substance used by swarms on their orientation trought out the trails). It’s exactly this artificial evaporation and the computational ant collective group sinergy realocating their upgrades of pheromone at interesting places, that allows for the emergence of adaptation and perception of new images. Only some of the 6000 iterations processed are represented. The system does not have any type of hierarchy, and ants communicate only in indirect forms, through out the sucessive alteration that they found on the Habitat.

Figure - Transition behaviour of one Artificial Ant Colony in presence of a sudden change in his artificial digital image Habitat, between two different Digital Grey Images. Created with an Artificial Ant Colony, that uses images as Habitats, being sensible to their gray levels. At the second row, "Kafka" image is replaced as a substrate, by "Red Ant". In black, the higher levels of pheromone (a chemical evaporative sugar substance used by swarms on their orientation trought out the trails). It’s exactly this artificial evaporation and the computational ant collective group sinergy realocating their upgrades of pheromone at interesting places, that allows for the emergence of adaptation and "perception" of new images. Only some of the 6000 iterations processed are represented. The system does not have any type of hierarchy, and ants communicate only in indirect forms, through out the sucessive alteration that they found on the Habitat.

Some recent studies have pointed that, the self-organization of neurons into brain-like structures, and the self-organization of ants into a swarm are similar in many respects. If possible to implement, these features could lead to important developments in pattern recognition systems, where perceptive capabilities can emerge and evolve from the interaction of many simple local rules. The principle of the method is inspired by the work of Chialvo and Millonas who developed the first numerical simulation in which swarm cognitive map formation could be explained. From this point, an extended model is presented in order to deal with digital image habitats, in which artificial ants could be able to react to the environment and perceive it. Evolution of pheromone fields point that artificial ant colonies could react and adapt appropriately to any type of digital habitat.


(to obtain the respective PDF file follow link above or visit





[...] People should learn how to play Lego with their minds. Concepts are building bricks [...] V. Ramos, 2002.

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