|0:36||Intro. Spontaneous order, complexity, emergence, self-organizing systems: the way that order emerges without control. Central to economics, parallelism in world of ants. From Ants at Work:|
The basic mystery about ant colonies is that there is no management. A functioning organization with no one in charge is so unlike the way humans operate as to be virtually inconceivable. No insect issues commands to another or instructs it to do things in a certain way. No individual is aware what must be done to complete any colony task. Each ant scratches and prods its way through the tiny world of its immediate surroundings. Ants meet each other, separate, go about their business. Somehow these small events create a pattern that drives the coordinated behavior of colonies.How did scientists come to recognize these patterns, history, what was intriguing? A bit of the Old Testament, Proverbs, first part familiar: "Look to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise. Without chief or ruler or overseer she gathers her harvest in the fall to save for the winter." Understood 6000 years ago that there is nobody in charge. Mostly sterile female workers. Ant that lays the eggs is named the Queen since the 18th century, suggests authority, newer idea than the reality that nobody is in charge. The Queen is bigger, merely the ovaries of the colony, not the one who decides what needs to be done. But movies like "Ants" and "A Bug's Life" sets up whole organizations with hierarchy. Stories are reflections of how we think about society, but not about ants. Last 20 years: questions about organization about hierarchy has become more interesting with the advent of computers. Ants don't have cell phones like CEOs, no hierarchical organization.
|6:01||10,000 species of ants, 50 of which well-studied. Most ants can't see. Some can distinguish shapes or direction of light. They smell well with their antennae. Many different glands secreting different chemicals used for communication. Within a colony, species all have same glands. Another chemical communication, not just an alarm signal that is a chemical secreted immediately, pheremones are put outside the body, as opposed to hormones. Volatile, dissipates in the air quickly. Ants, bees, wasps also secrete and spread by grooming a layer of grease, fatty acids, secreted in gland in mouth parts, thought to help body from drying out, hydrocarbons spread over cuticle or outside body of ant. These carry a specific odor of the colony, a signature. Can take very young ants and put them in another colony in even a different species and they will be accepted because they come to take on the odor spread on them by grooming. Harvester ants: within a colony everyone has the same signature, but also ants of different tasks smell different. Conditions of the job make them smell different. Lives in desert, hot dry conditions changes chemistry of the hydrocarbons on their bodies, so outdoor ants come to smell different from the inside ants, allowing ants to recognize the tasks it does. Coal miner, calluses on carpenter's hand. Ants use the rate at which they smell each other, bump into each other, to decide what to do next. Ants respond to glass beads with the odors and changed tasks if rate was high. Are odors receivable by other species? Can humans smell them? Humans can smell some of the ants volatile pheromones like the lemon smell of one tropical species, but not the hydrocarbons conveying tasks.|
|14:26||Experiments. Foragers: early in morning a group of patrollers goes out, and foragers won't go out unless the patrollers come back. Avoid neighboring ants. Fighting season sometimes, but mostly just avoid others for reasons of competition. If you take away the patrollers the foragers never go out. What if patrollers encounter other species, what do they do? Predator, horned lizard, might eat them. Direction matters. Each day the patrollers choose a few directions, so not only whether they come back but where they choose to mark. If you map the trails, if the older ones meet one day they are not likely to use that trail the next day. Adolescents return and keep fighting. What makes foragers go out and what direction do they choose? Mike Green, U. Colorado at Denver. If you extract the hydrocarbons from patrollers and put it onto glass beads, drop beads into the entrance, the foragers come out. Learned that it had to be at a particular rate, not too fast or too slow. Has to be about 10 seconds. Too long and it's as if the ants forget it ever happened. At first only a few patrollers go out; if successful then more. Finally some 30-50 patrollers, returning every ten seconds, which is enough to end up signaling to 30-40,000 foragers. Next question: How do foragers know what to do with response to the beads, which direction to go? Just milled around. In the absence of patrollers foragers just go where they went the day before. Kept patrollers off nest mound. Extracted glands and marked a sector where they had been disallowed, then the foragers go there.|
|23:49||Killing ants, feeling guilty. Does the Queen have some kind of control, say, over the mix of types within the colony? Small number of patrollers relative to foragers; after a war is the Queen able to change the mix of fighters and workers? No. In some species the workers come in different sizes, sometimes large ones called soldiers. But very few species have that; and it's not clear that large ones are always fighters; might break seeds with large jaws. In movie "Ants" there is a bureaucrat who stamps the larva at birth. But in most species, like Harvester ants, their tasks change as they get older. Division of labor is self-organized, regulated by wages. Task allocation is a process that has to be driven by simple rules at the level of each ant. Sequence that an ant will go through. Start inside nest with nest-maintenance, simple trips outside, then may become a patroller if more needed, or even more foragers. But never switch back once one has become a forager or patroller, so if more need for nest-maintenance, they have to be recruited from younger ants. "If rate at which I'm meeting foragers really increases, I'm going there too." Is that division of labor? Is it what Adam Smith was talking about? Wasn't he talking about a happy village with people all doing what they do best? Ants don't necessarily get better at doing things; merely transitions imposed from the outside.|
|31:20||It's actually not much different in economics and it is related to the division of labor. Specialization, one piece of the story, think about learning by doing. Some truth to it. But tension, doing same thing over and over can become monotonous. The real power comes from getting the right people in the job because we are not all equally good. In human world, changes in wages and non-monetary satisfaction draw people into particular tasks. Random distribution of jobs is not as beneficial for increased wealth. Russ, at 5'6", would not do as well as Larry Byrd; not just doing well, but who is doing well. When demand for foragers goes up, it would be good for the colony to increase the number of foragers. But probably all ants are equally good at foraging, works pretty much as all equal. Distributed process. Some do seem to work harder than others; many sluggards. Division of Labor podcast distinguishes between Smith and Ricardo, different illustrations of the power of specialization. Ricardo, came from different skills. Smith, division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. Example clarifying that from Jim Buchanan: with a bunch of people who hunt, as number of hunters increases, one finds merely because of sheer numbers that he can supply food, open a deli. Could all be equally skilled. Get specialization just because with enough economic activity you get specialization no matter what. Not just different skills. You presume that if there is a bad hunter he might become a deli operator. Ricardo's insight is that it's the relative productivity not the absolute productivity that matters, so it might be best even if the best hunter becomes the deli operator (if he's relatively even better at deli operation). Different focus, different intuitive parts of the story, not really different theories of specialization. Learn something from each of Ricardo's and Smith's conception of how specialization and the division of labor works.|
|40:06||In Nature article, in this self-organizing system, without a leader, is imperfect. It's remarkable how it works without control, but it's not perfect. Can miss a big pile of seeds because they only go to certain places. Just have to find enough to keep going. Even if you put out a big pile of seeds, the foragers will walk right over it if the patrollers didn't mark it! Trails can be up to 20 meters long. Takes about 25 minutes for an ant. Each ant goes back to same place on successive trips. Patroller tells a direction but not how far to go. Find food randomly in that direction. Foragers go out in that direction; rate at which successful foragers come in determines how many more foragers go out. Sense of smell helps them find it in the sand. Intensity of foraging. What is the cost of foraging? Cost is dessication, drying out. Get their water out of metabolizing the seeds they eat; spend water being out in the sun. Respond to outdoor temperature. Can't move fast when it's cold; hot, run around fast; but at some point too hot for their feet so they stay in. No ability to sweat. Colony acts as if it's wise even though no one member is wise. Like Surowiecki's Wisdom of Crowds, Smith's invisible hand, Hayek's "Use of Knowledge in Society". Limitations of language with talking these self-organizing societies. Do you use "the colony" as the subject of a sentence? Yes, think about it all the time. Easy to talk about ants as if they have agency. Tension. Hayek called the human version of this a "marvel." Coordinatedness without a coordinator is marvelous, interesting. Makes a difference in how we understand what's happening to us. How important is it to us as humans that we think we have agency? Consider Read's "I, Pencil," suppose graphite becomes in higher demand by someone who doesn't make pencils. Makes graphite less available. How does the awareness of the demand for other goods like cars get pencil and tennis-racket makers to cut back (or supply of graphite to increase), or change production methods to use less graphite? Range of choices of how we respond is vast. What knowledge would we want someone to have to make the right decision? Unfathomably much, and may not even exist till the crisis. No way that a central authority could acquire the information and then send it out to users before yet something else changed. But each supplier only looks at one thing--the price of one good. Similar to ants just looking at the hydrocarbons. Self-regulating. Imperfect, things can get missed, but amazing that it works at all and that it works better than any other system. Each of us is like the ant. We have our task, we try to do it well, sometimes we mess up, but overall there is an immense amount of order in our society. But unlike the ants we have sentience, intelligence, can try to respond with whole new ways to do things; dynamic element that ants don't have.|
|54:46||The ants aren't faced with the decision of whether we care more about pencils or tennis rackets. They only keep going. Isn't Russ's story taking the goals for granted? What if we wanted to encourage more of something? Who is "we"? Usually humans don't have a unanimous desire for what we should do next. Sometimes coincide, but sometimes not. Prices help keep down violence when tied to property rights and other institutional arrangements. Value. Suppose I want to stop eating meat, become a vegetarian. In an authoritarian world the people in charge of the whole system (human organizations have control but there is very little control across organizations) could go out and survey people and could possibly make plans based on the answers. But hard to decide. Market solution emerges, we have no language for it and sometimes says "the market does this" as if the market is a sentient actor, harmless in one sense, but can hamper others including economists about what is going on. In the market system, non-organized, when people become vegetarians, a bunch of stuff gets set in motion via signals--vegetarian restaurants, etc. Takes only a few months. The choices don't hamper the choices made by others, except that others may have to pay a higher price. You may care about other people's choices in addition to your own. Original example, conflict in tastes of different people: for the ants if that happens there is no possibility of its having any impact, but for us we have the option of making a decision, even if it's hard to see how to implement it; we can sit here and talk about it. We know about the extended effects. If lots of Americans decide to become vegetarians it can affect tropical forests and we're capable of knowing about that and thinking about what that means. Forces are generated by the type of system that ants operate in, analogies, but in a human system on top of that is that we can understand it and in principle make decisions about changing it. Many self-organizing systems don't work well. For ants, no choice. For us, when we see something with bad outcomes we want to fix them. Pollution, congestion; we have a natural tendency to say we can fix that. Ironically, because we don't have a lot of intuition about self-organizing behavior we often look for solutions that lead to unintended consequences because we don't understand the nature of system-wide change. So we widen 101, the Bay Area thruway; and don't understand why it's still as crowded now as before. We don't look at ants enough.|