Reflections On Groups

M G Bell

In Agent Human, the development of the more advanced stages of human consciousness is attributed to the demands of group living; but many other types of animal live in groups without, as far as we know, arriving at anything resembling human consciousness. Well, we do not know, and the past few years have produced countless demonstrations of intelligent behaviour in animals which were seen as suprising. And now come robots, or more generally, constructs having artificial intelligence, and it will be a good question, whether to equip them with the sorts of interactive (we may call them 'social') behaviours which might require something resembling consciousness to be fully effective. If Nature, or evolution, found it necessary to equip us with consciousness in order to optimize our 'groupish' performance, then why should it not be equally beneficial to do the same for robots?

Images immediately come to mind of I, Robot, or of Skynet, and a host of other fictional dystopias, and it can be expected that there will be legislative, moral, religious and simply prudential rules to try to prevent the emergence of conscious groups of robots. Not that anyone has yet succeeded in describing or locating consciousness, so that it might be quite difficult to formulate rules for robots which would not amount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Consider, for a moment, a battlefield group of robotic actors thrown into the defence of a military facility against an armed attack. Let there not be any civilians, to simplify the problem. It still bristles with difficulties, involving recognition of enemy actors, judgment about necessary levels of force, trade-offs between surrendering territory or munitions and maximizing the destruction of enemy forces. At present, drones are the nearest approach to this, and they have human minders, a job by the way that destroys people, and I don't mean their targets. But it is easy to see that this is a temporary situation, and that it will be optimal to build in a considerable amount of cooperation between the robotic actors independently of any external, remote direction, for which there will not be time, in any case.

Now let us dive into some recent research along the lines of demonstrating 'groupish' behaviour among animals or robots, beginning, improbably, with slime moulds. Nowadays, they are not considered to be moulds and are often not particularly slimy. There are lots of different types, but broadly one can say that they aggregate multiple individual eukaryotic cells (like ours, having membrane-bound internal structures) into a grouped organism, which can move, eat, excrete and reproduce. Researchers (Romain P. Boisseau, David Vogel and Audrey Dussutour of Toulouse University) have described learning behaviour in slime moulds whereby they found out that it was safe to cross a bridge coated with bitter substances in order to reach an attractive oat-based meal through a process of experimentation. 'Habituation in non-neural organisms: evidence from slime moulds' was published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society (27 April 2016.DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0446). It was already known that slime moulds can learn their way around a maze, but this was a new level of 'intelligent' behaviour from an organism that certainly has no brain or neural circuits, and of course it would have been impossible for an individual slime mould cell to reach the food.

Dimos Dimarogonas, an associate professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden has reported work aimed at enabling off-the-shelf robots to cooperate with one another on complex jobs, by using body language. "Robots can stop what they're doing and go over to assist another robot which has asked for help," Dimarogonas says. "This will mean flexible and dynamic robots that act much more like humans – robots capable of constantly facing new choices and that are competent enough to make decisions." The project was completed in May 2016, with project partners at Aalto University in Finland, the National Technical University of Athens in Greece, and the École Centrale Paris in France. In a video, a robot points out an object to another robot, conveying the message that it needs the robot to lift the item. Says Dimarogonas: "The visual feedback that the robots receive is translated into the same symbol for the same object. With updated vision technology they can understand that one object is the same from different angles. That is translated to the same symbol one layer up to the decision-making – that it is a thing of interest that we need to transport or not. In other words, they have perceptual agreement." In another demonstration two robots carry an object together. One leads the other, which senses what the lead robot wants by the force it exerts on the object. "It's just like if you and I were carrying a table and I knew where it had to go," says Dimarogonas. "You would sense which direction I wanted to go by the way I turn and push, or pull."

Panagiotis Artemiadis, director of the Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab and an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, reported in July, 2016 that a human operator can control multiple drones through a wireless interface, by thinking of various tasks. The controller wears a skull cap outfitted with 128 electrodes wired to a computer, which records electrical brain activity. Up to four small robots, some of which fly, can be controlled with brain interfaces. If the controller moves a hand or thinks of something, certain areas light up. "I can see that activity from outside," says Artemidias. "Our goal is to decode that activity to control variables for the robots." For instance, if the user thinks about spreading out the drones – "We know what part of the brain controls that thought," Artemiadis said. "You can't do something collectively" with a joystick, he says. "If you want to swarm around an area and guard that area, you cannot do that." Artemiades says he had the idea to go to a lot of machines a few years ago. "If you lose half of them, it doesn't really matter," Artemiadis said, adding that he was surprised that "the brain cares about swarms and collective behaviors". The next step in Artemiadis's research is to have multiple people controlling multiple robots. He sees drone swarms performing complex operations, such as search-and-rescue missions. Video at

Well, a short study of animal groups is all that is needed to remove the element of surprise. There is an intricate mechanism in the brain to deal with the behaviour of clouds of conspecifics, and not of course only in humans. So it is only a matter of time before groups of artificial intelligences are equipped with mechanisms to allow them to function effectively without human control in time-limited, physically challenging or crisis situations, displaying what might look to an outside observer as being conscious behaviour.


Michael Bell
8th June 2016

A series of recent experiments has shown that various types of fish and birds are able to distinguish between different individual humans. Classically, this has been supposed to be possible only between the members of more advanced species, and specifically for those that have developed socialization to the point of needing to be able to recognize and characterize particular individuals. A husband recognizes his wife, at least if he does not mistake her for a hat; a dog recognizes its mistress; and even a snake knows its owner. Of course, vision is not the only sensory modality involved: smell is no doubt equally important; and if animals are telepathic, they may also be using techniques to which my wife and I have no access.

As described in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of scientists from Oxford and Queensland Universities found that archerfish were able to learn and recognize faces with a high degree of accuracy, discriminating one face from up to 44 others. This species of tropical fish, known for its ability to spit jets of water to knock down aerial prey, were presented with two images of human faces and trained to choose one of them using their jets. The fish were then presented with the learned face and a series of new faces and were able to correctly choose the face they had initially learned to recognize. They were able to do this task even when more obvious features, such as head shape and colour, were removed from the images.

First author Dr Cait Newport, Marie Curie Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, said: "The fact that archerfish can learn this task suggests that complicated brains are not necessarily needed to recognize human faces. Humans may have special facial recognition brain structures so that they can process a large number of faces very quickly or under a wide range of viewing conditions."

Separately, as reported in PLOS ONE by Masanori Kohda from the Osaka City University, Japan and colleagues, daffodil cochlid fish attended to digital models with unfamiliar faces longer and from a further distance than to models with familiar faces. This is a group-living species and the results suggest that fish may be able to distinguish individuals accurately using facial color patterns.

In two further experiments, animal behaviour experts from the University of Lincoln in the UK and the University of Vienna worked with pigeons and crows. Their results, published in Avian Biology Research shows that pigeons can reliably discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar humans, and that they use facial features to tell people apart. The experimental group birds were able to recognise and classify the familiar people using only their faces, whereas the birds without prior training failed. In a separate study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, the team investigated the ability of carrion crows to differentiate between the voices and calls of familiar and unfamiliar humans and jackdaws. The crows responded significantly more often to unfamiliar than familiar human voices and, conversely, responded more to familiar than unfamiliar jackdaw calls.

Humans have long been inclined to credit themselves with mental abilities denied to 'lesser' species, although little by little, the differences have been whittled away by successive researchers. There always will be differences, of course, albeit in some cases to the disadvantage of humans, but by now research has demonstrated a remarkable degree of homology between the brains of multiple species, including ourselves. Evolution is very parsimonious.

Many scientists are now somewhat grudgingly coming to accept that we are not quite as exceptional as we like to imagine we are, but one respect in which they lag far behind the truth is in respect of sociality. By all means, it is true that the achievements of our society, some glittering and some noticeably debased, have been erected on the foundations of group living, but there is a disconnect between the admitted role of sociality in human existence and its comparable importance for earlier species, which is highlighted by these results, exemplified by the description, above, of cochlid fish as being 'group living', as if other types of fish behave otherwise. Did you ever see a type of fish that did not school? or a type of bird that did not flock? Why then would they not be able to recognize each other, not just as conspecifics, but as individuals? It must be admitted that individuality has reached a peak of elaboration in human groups, but this has been built on a principle that already existed.

In searching for the origins of individuality, we may not go as far as to propose that ragworms distinguish themselves one from another, although even a ragworm may 'notice' or respond to the fact that a fellow ragworm is bigger or smaller or smellier or faster, and behave accordingly. The question is: at what stage of evolutionary development did awareness of difference between oneself and one's fellows come to have a significant adaptive advantage; because that is the moment at which individuality arose as a fundamental principle of life, alongside the ability to notice it.

Sitting Around The Camp-Fire

Michael Bell
October 22, 2014

Recently published research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that early human use of fire had major social implications as well as the more commonly described dietary and physiological aspects.

Dr Polly Wiessner, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah, analysed the content of 174 recorded or documented day and nighttime conversations among Kalahari Bushmen, and says that sitting around a campfire at night enables conversations, storytelling, and social bonding more effectively than daytime interactions.

"I found this really fascinating difference between conversations by firelight and conversations in the day," says Wiessner. "The day is harsh, you see the realities, you see the facial expressions, there's work to be done, and there's social regulation, and at night people kind of mellow out. The day is productive time for hunting and gathering and the firelight changed our circadian rhythm, so we stayed awake much longer and it gave a whole new time and space, and it was a time when no work could be done," she says. "I think it had an impact on our cognitive evolution; the stories are told in wonderful language, perhaps increasing linguistic skills and the imagination . . . when you're out in the dark by a fire, so many of the stimuli are shut out and your imagination then takes off."

Weissner notes that fireside conversations often focus on wider social contexts and relationships among a far-flung network of acquaintances, some of whom may even be dead.

Humans didn't invent fire, of course; they learned to control it, and to use it for cooking, heating, manufacture, deterrence of predators. And now it seems that it may have played a considerable role in the development of language and social structures. Based on archeological evidence, early human use of fire is dated to between 400,000 and one million years ago, and is commonly associated with Homo erectus, although many commentators think that fire came into regular use only towards the end of that time period, perhaps driven at least partly by the need to cook food to support the metabolic demands of the enlarging human hunter-gatherer brain.

300-400,000 years ago is (very approximately) the period during which homo erectus began its gradual transition into homo sapiens, and a time at which spoken language was beginning itss rapid development alongside the elaboration of the human social group. Wiessner's 'wonderful language' wouldn't yet exist, but it's not hard to imagine that firelight would have played a considerable role in the crucible of linguistic and societal development.

Grow Your Brain With Facebook

Michael Bell
August 27, 2014

There have been many academic studies linking increased brain size in mammals to social complexity: it doesn't seem very contentious to suggest that dealing with the complex behaviours of up to 150 group members would require more brain cells than solitary life. Or at least it seems likely to have been true until the state began to take over management of social relationships: someone should study whether couch potatoes have smaller brains than professional carers. But there have been relatively few rigorous attempt to correlate brain size with particular social behaviours.

Now a team in the University of Colombia's Department of Zoology has carried out research, published in the Journal of Ecology and Evolution, which demonstrates a clear correlation between brain size and the need to care for offspring. OK, it's in stickleback fish, and they're not even mammals, but what seems particularly convincing is that it's the males that have larger brains than the females, and it's the males who do the caring in that particular species. Of course this will be unsurprising to human females, who have long known that looking after their children requires more mental capacity than going down to the pub and watching football, but it does offer an escape route from female domination for those males who are prepared to search for their inner carers.

Well, enough frivolity. In the study, 'Reversed brain size sexual dimorphism accompanies loss of parental care in white sticklebacks', researchers compared regular male sticklebacks to male white sticklebacks, which do not tend to their offspring, and found a clear difference in brain size. They found evidence that this change in male behaviour – giving up caring for the young – occurred at the same time the white stickleback evolved a smaller brain. The white stickleback is a newly-emerged species that only diverged from other sticklebacks 10,000 years ago.

Said lead author Kieran Samuk, a PhD student in UBC's Dept. of Zoology: "This suggests that regular sticklebacks have bigger brains to handle the brain power needed to care for and protect their young. This is one of the first studies to link parental care with brain size."

The association between greater brain size and social complexity is of course demonstrated across many species, not just mammalian. How far back could we go, then in terms of demonstrating a linkage between social (groupish) behaviour and brain size?

Before fish, in general terms, from an evolutionary perspective, came sharks (chondrichthians). They certainly have social behaviours, and there is a wide variety of brain designs and sizes among contemporary sharks. Interesting then, to know if any correlation could be established between shark socializing and their brain size. Then come the invertebrate sea creatures, and another level of difficulty in terms of research. We need submersible robot PhDs, and that is a stretch, currently.

Groups Versus The Cuckoo

M G Bell
January 6, 2014

It's well known that cuckoos parasitize the nests of other birds, and the benefit to the cuckoos of this "brood parasitism" is obvious; what is not clear is why young members from other nests of the species that is being parasitized sometimes help to feed an intruder cuckoo chick.

Research carried out by a team led by evolutionary biologist Dr Naomi Langmore of the Australian National University has studied this phenomenon, known as "cooperative breeding", concluding that it is because the continued presence of a group of the host species acts to deter the cuckoos from placing their eggs in the hosts' nests in the first place.

"It's a very puzzling type of behaviour," says Langmore. While at first it was thought that the reason for the young birds to hang around was simply that they helped to raise more chicks, the research has suggested that the group mechanism is more credible.

The researchers studied colonies of speckled warblers and fairy wrens, finding that a team of four or five group helpers made it much more likely the hosts could defend their nests against cuckoos than a smaller team of only two or three birds, not being enough individuals to "mob" cuckoos and drive them off.

"Maybe the main benefit cooperative breeding provides is in safety in numbers," says Langmore.

"Brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and then they abandon their young to the care of the host," says Langmore. "So the host loses that brood then they invest weeks or months rearing the cuckoo chick and very often have no time left to breed again after that. This is a massively costly thing for the host."

The research showed a clear correlation between the size of groups of fairy wrens and their ability to resist parasitism.

"If there are four or more individuals in the group they almost never get parasitized by a cuckoo whereas the small groups of two or three individuals are much more likely to get parasitized."

"We can't say that brood parasitism actually caused the evolution of cooperative breeding because we can't say which one came first," says Langmore. "But we can say that it provides a very strong selective force for the maintenance of cooperative breeding."

- Robot Cockroach Can Change Roach Group Behaviour
- Altruism And Xenophobia May Be Bedfellows
- Elephants Can Classify Humans
- On-Line Gaming Helps To Form Social Groups, Says Study
- 'Baby-Talk' Used In Social Settings By Rhesus Monkeys
- Apes Play Charades To Get Preferred Food
- Mirror Neurons Influenced By Cultural Spin
- Pensions For Immortals
- Girls On Top!
- Exploring The Brain: Intentionality
- Your New, Improved President
- Just How Nasty Should We Be?
- Another Glass Of Wine, Sir?
- Anyone For World Of Statecraft?
- Conferences Are Groups, Too
- At Last, A Use For Cats
- Private - Good; Public - Bad
- Brains For Washing Machines: Silicon Or Hydrocarbons?
- Are Mirror Neurons Racist?
- Altruism And Xenophobia May Be Bedfellows
- How Do You Program A Group Of Robots?
- The Female Of The (Social) Species . . .
- Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave, When First We Practice To Deceive
- Will Your Grandchild Talk To A Raven?
- Arise, Sir Gordon!
- Sharing Nurture And Nature
- Human Or Animal?
- Calmly Considered, I Would Say Your Bottom Is Tops
- Wasps Remember Who Not To Sting
- Emotions And Trade Aren't A Good Match
- Le Compte Ory - Lizards Got There First
- Can You Hear Me, Out There?
- The Right Way To Communicate
- Cockroaches Prefer To Dine Together
- Linked-Up Lizards
- Do You Recognize Me?
- Altruistic Corn

Other publications by Michael Godfrey Bell

We, Immortals:
The Future Of The Mind

A fictional account, set in 2130, of what life might be like in cyberspace, based on the ideas of Agent Human. Eight young people challenge the status quo by exploring group consciousness, something forbidden by the authorities, who try to 'wipe' them and destroy their legacy human bodies.

To read We, Immortals: The Future Of The Mind on-line, just click here.

To download a copy of We, Immortals: The Future Of The Mind, just click here.



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