Monday, June 26, 2006

Schools of babbling disembodied AIBOs surfing the web waves

In an article on Embodied and Communicating Agents, this paragraph:

" children, the [Sony] AIBOs initially started babbling aimlessly until two or more settled on a sound to describe an object or aspect of their environment, gradually building a lexicon and grammatical rules through which to communicate."

...made me wonder what would happen if such learning and communicating agents were disembodied and distributed throughout the web.

Schooling web-bots communicating about 'objects' they discover and interact with on the net might help understand and navigate the web in ways that could harness the intelligence of evolutionary computing and provide a swarms-eye, multi-dimensional view of the state of the global electronic stigmergic substrate.

Perhaps the researchers are alluding to this when they said:

"The results of the project might trigger significant breakthroughs in many future and emergent technologies, from self-developing robots to the semantic web and ubiquitous wireless devices."

...or maybe I'm just imagining things. Anyway this is just plain funny (if not suggestively metaphorical some how) - movie of a real dog attacking a robot dog.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Stigmergy, Institutions, Law, & Cooperation Part 1: The Panopticon

Reading the article, Pentagon Sets Its Sights on Social Networking Websites,

"New Scientist has discovered that Pentagon's National Security Agency, which specialises in eavesdropping and code-breaking, is funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks."

by Paul Marks prompted me to review the notion of the panopticon within the contexts of stigmergy. This will no doubt require a number of visits (hence 'Part 1').

First proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, a panopticon is a building that allows an observer to observe all the occupants without them being able to tell if they are being observed. Although the design did not bear fruit during Bentham's lifetime, the panopticon (originally designed to create self-monitoring in prisoner communities) did receive important analysis by Michel Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish. Foucault theorised that the evolution of all forms of institution required a specific type of discipline that observes without excessive force, and based upon these observations, shapes the subject into the correct form for the institution doing the observation. He further reasons that this specific type of discipline was exemplified by Bentham's Panopticon.

Howard Rheingold picked up this theme in his book, Smart Mobs, under the chapter, Always-On Panopticon...or Cooperation Amplifier. He explores the ways in which pervasive, networked communications and infrastructure can contribute towards the emergence of novel modes and means of cooperation, or/and provide the framework towards and 'always-on panopticon', even perhaps more far reaching in its applications than Foucault even suspected. You can read many interesting blogs relating to this theme here.

So, how does stigmergy increase or decrease the ability for panopticonic discipline, and is this good or bad? Well... structured social information always enables our collective capacity create or exploit patterned (recurring) behavior through the spontaneous generation of values, beliefs and norms, which are generally reflected through a society's institutions and laws. Whether in a hunter gatherer tribe in Western Australia, or at the International Court of Justice, institutions make laws which require enforcement by institutions. This dynamic forms a recursive relationship which not only dictates when you can turn right on a red, but who, when, where, how and why people can and can't work, sleep, socialize and stigmergically cooperate with one another.

In the contexts of the tripartite stigmergic organisation of agent-environment-superorganism, the environment (nest) becomes the medium for information encoding by the individual agents (ants) to be interpreted by the superorganism (hive). Of course we are still unsure of the role of the superorganism with respects to humanity (and hives), regardless, the theory remains useful when considering the web, wiki or social network sites. The very fact that information is being stigmergically encoded allows the superorganism (collections of people) the possibility and probability to both create and exploit that information through patterned behavior and the creation of institutions, laws and cooperation.

As we all know, cooperation can work for the 'dark side' as much as for good, as can institutions and laws and well... just about anything subjected to the human will. The fact that global stigmergy may be emerging as a primary driver for the evolution of collaboration, cooperation and humanity in general, should be a cue to us all that both the good, the bad (and the beautiful) may become increasingly powerful as their ability to spontaneously generate new institutions, laws and cooperation is amplified.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Defining Collaboration

Before one can get too far discussing stigmergic collaboration, one will quickly find that defining the process of ‘collaboration’ is very slippery. In fact, very little cross-disciplinary research has been done towards investigating and understanding this process. What little research has taken place, has happened within the context of a particular discipline such as education, science, artificial intelligence etc. As a result, the outcomes often heavily reflect the interests of that particular discipline. - To date, there exists no 'general theory of collaboration'. Consequently, the definition of the process of collaboration has become a central issue for my research.

In an ordinary dictionary, one finds a definition along the lines of, ‘two or more people working together to achieve a common goal.’ This is very broad indicating that anything from a friendship, to a university, to a city or nation may qualify. In fact, upon further investigation, one may even begin to doubt whether or not this type of definition should be limited to humans — many other social creatures work together to achieve common goals in some way or another. However, based upon research into the many fields where the topic is discussed (and in order to keep my research focused) I’ve narrowed my own notions of a collaboration to:

The process of two or more people thinking, planning, deciding, working and acting together in order to create a shared emergent understanding, process and or outcome that reflects the interests and input of the total body of contributors.

The focus on an emergent shared understanding for me harbours much of the mystery and potential of this ubiquitous phenomenon, for in my opinion and experience, it is the emergent shared understanding that distinguishes collaboration from cooperation, and even provides a means to at least partially overcome the existential barrier of subjective experience.

For more on collaboration, and indeed to collaborate on the definition of collaboration, see the MetaCollab article on collaboration.

I will post on the darker side of collaboration’s etymological history soon…

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Individual as Collective: stimulated by the performance one has achieved

The content of this post has been collaboratively developed with Elizabeth Presa.

I ended a past post, Some General Off-the-Cuff Reflections on Stigmergy with the reflection: "as I paste all this jabber into my private wiki, I realized that stigmergy doesn’t have to be social, that is, the communication can be with oneself…" This got me thinking about the use of the process of stigmergy by and for the individual. I post to my own wiki (behind a firewall) for the purposes of archiving, but more so in order to further develop my ideas for the eventual compilation of my PhD dissertation.

By doing work in my wiki which I can then reflect on in the future, I am able to stigmergically communicate with myself. I got to discussing this issue with my PhD supervisor, Elizabeth Presa, and we quickly realised that there are some fundamental connections between 'auto stigmergy' and the creative/artistic process. That is, a fundamental component of this process is the reflection upon and the reworking of one's reifications.

These realisations prompted many more... If stigmergy seemingly works in relation to a single individual, could the workings of an individual have aspects in common with that of a collective? Would it need to for the stigmergic process to operate? Was this process in fact stigmergy or some other closely related phenomenon - if so, what is it?

I later came across this paper Artificial Ant Colonies in Digital Image Habitats - A Mass Behaviour Effect Study on Pattern Recognition which suggests that, "the self-organization of neurons into brain-like structures, and the self-organization of ants into a swarm are similar in many respects." This idea of the individual mind as a collective is of course not new, and our brains are composed of hundreds of billions of neurons as well as many varying components which to some degree specialise in various functions. So perhaps it should not be so surprising that stigmergy could function in relation to the individual mind as it does to the many. Perhaps a type of intersubjectivity exists between the many aspects of one’s mind in a similar way as it does between the minds of many individuals?

As any artist could attest to, one doodles, sketches, drafts and after a time, this work stimulates the emergence and gives voice to an idea that previously hasn't had the opportunity to find a material form. This is the stuff of inspiration, of the creative spark - what once wasn't, suddenly is… or rather, is suddenly becoming.

This brings us to serendipity (thanks Julen!). As I'm sure every artist (and probably most people) could attest that when the creative spark flashes, there is often something serendipitous about it - the result is unexpected and seems to be 'perfect', it 'fits just right', etc. In the context of a work of art, it is the serendipitous inspirational flashes that seem (at least for me) to draw together, kick start and breath life into what eventually may come to be a coherent work with a character and nature all its own.