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Re: <eyebeam><blast> Ant consciousness

Dear Brian,
Thank you for your message. You ask such compelling questions. As a
matter of fact, it is much easier, less intimidating for me to respond
to your posts when they include an element of uncertainty.

You wrote:
>I found your last post very interesting
>and hope you'll continue a little in that vein.....especially on this bit:
>>"..... Because the elements (ants)
>>obey simple dynamic rules, they are mobile cellular automata. This is
>>very useful in studying the properties of complex dynamical systems of
>>various kinds, made up of interacting elements (for example, the
>>internet, and this listserv forum.)"
>But beyond control, could a certain kind of sensitivity to the complex
>eddies and flows of intersubjective exchange allow one to help
>precipitate the unknown? Could one, say, recognize pattern formation and
>intervene where a new pattern could possibly come into formation?

Initially I believe my interest in ants comes from childhood in Los
Angeles: watching armys of tiny black ants trail across the kitchen. I
would build little works of architecture for them: bridges, barricades,
promenades made of toothpicks and sugarcubes. I would witness their
wars. And no matter what my mother would do to try to rid the house of
of these creatures, they kept coming back, season after season, year
after year, following the same pathways, the same trails. I knew there
was something interesting happening, but I didn't understand it yet.
(I'm not so sure I do now either.)

Thankfully there are still mysteries in the world.

Ants...is it instinct, intuition or intelligence that drives them or is
it a magnificent combination of all three? To isolate "the ordinary" and
study it is to enlarge it - to magnify it - to bring out its
magnificence.  In about an hour, an ant can learn its way around a
square meter of ground. Ants that are tested in mazes are found to
correct their errors, and after so many tries, never make the same
mistakes again.  What is most compelling, though, is their behaviours
which appear to be a kind of collective logic. And this is where my
recent work with the Jacquard Loom has returned me to a study of
ants...in particular weaver ants.

Let me tell you something about my artistic process. I start with a
hunch or sometimes a swoon. And some kind of momentum starts building
and I know I'm on to something, but I don't quite get it yet. So I start
paying attention to things differently and more acutely: looking for
patterns, similarities, resonances. There is an increase in time spent
reading, listening, talking, an increase in general activity....still
not knowing exactly what the outcome of all this is. Then threads start
twisting themselves into crisp lines of flight. And nodes start erupting
on the threads, and something begins to emerge which is more like a
faint melody than anything formed. Like hearing someone whistle in the
dark without seeing the source of the sound. There is something living,
breathing, making this song happen but where, and who and what for? Then
comes the time of information gathering. Collecting data. It starts to
flow in from all directions, and the glorious abundance is intoxicating.
This is where others come in. This is the network, this is the
collective ant-brain of art. When your work and the works of others
start building into an architecture, nebulous at first, but a structure
develops out of the ooze. Then a phase shift happens. And suddenly all
the patterns snap into place: a glittering crystalline configuration.
And then I have the beginings of an installation, and from that point
forward, it's simply a matter of logistics, practicalities and being

Some of the most complex behaviour in the entire animal kingdom can be
observed in weaver ants. An ancient breed, some specimens were preserved
in amber 30 million years ago. They have a highly developed
pheromone-based system of communication. And most interesting to me at
the moment is the way they construct large living areas by weaving their
own "houses" from leaves and small twigs, which are complete with "rooms
and walls and floors and ceilings". (sorry, I don't know the scientific
or ant names for these structures). Not only do they weave their own
elaborate living spaces, they form chains of their bodies into bridges
and scaffolds while they work. They then use their larvae to spin silk
(the same silk the larvae use to spin their own cocoons) to glue the
structure together. Talk about techniques of the body!

Installations, ant colonies, internets....how does order develop in
seemingly spontaneous ways in complex systems? How and why does
self-organization work? Is it all one big accident? Or do parallel
accidents converge in a braided stream of "consciousness"? Thankfully,
there is no central headquarters for the internet, so we can try to
observe it's patterns, and learn from them. This is what I am trying to
do with my "Only Questions" project of collecting data during this
forum. By compiling questions asked, a map emerges of the collective
questionings of the participants. (Interestingly, I've had several
comments on the backchannels from people who assume I am making these
questions up myself! It is so interesting how authourship becomes skewed
on the internet more easily than in "hard text". It is also intriguing
to see how the discussion flows by way of the questions people feel
compelled to ask. The results of this data gathering is of course
unpredictable, so it will be interesting to see the dynamic flow of the
questionings over the next three months.

The Mobile Robot Group at MIT has been building miniature, insect-like
high-performance robots. Swarms of autonomous micro-robots would be sent
to other planets to conduct missions. "Total autonomy actually increases
mission reliability. Out of control of ground based operators, the
robots can use force control with tight sensing feedback loops.
....Force control is the key to reliable performance in the face of any
uncertainty. By completely removing all ground based control of the
rovers, their complexity goes down drastically as there is no need for
much of the communications equipment, and no need for the ground support
maintaining communications. Simplicity increases reliability." (Rodney A
Brooks and Anita M. Flynn, MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab "Fast, Cheap
and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System", Journal of
the British Interplanetary Society, Vol 42, pp 478-485, 1989) One of the
questions asked in the MRG project: "What were the essential components
that would be needed to create an intelligent entity and how should
those components be put together?" Their approach emphasized:
1. that there would be no traditional notion of planning
 2. that no central representation was neeeded
 3. that notions of world modelling are impractical and unnecessary
 4. that biology and evolution were good models to follow in our quest
 5. that we insist on building complete systems that existed in the real
world so that we would not trick ourselves into skipping hard problems."

(sound familiar?)

These gnat-sized robots developed out of experiments dealing with how
intelligence systems organize themselves. Lots of robots with pint-sized
brains could have the same intelligence as one big robot. (And if one
big robot trips over a rock on Mars, oops, there goes gazillions of
hours of time and dollars. Ten tiny robots get crushed by a falling
rock, no problem, you have hundreds more to do the job.) (telephone call
interruption) You know, now I'm thinking about the human brain, and how
if part of it gets damaged, sometimes new neural pathways develop,
making new connections. (guess I'm drifting again).

Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos,
The way, when we climb a mountain,
Vermont throws itself together.
                                                     -Wallace Stevens,
"July Mountain"

Brian, I don't know if any of this has answered your very good
but I will continue to think about them.
All best,
Eve Andree Laramee
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