Stigmergy is a mechanism of indirect coordination between agents or actions. The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. In that way, subsequent actions tend to reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity.
Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, seemingly intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even direct communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even individual awareness of each other.
The term "stigmergy" was introduced by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in 1959 to refer to termite behavior. He defined it as: "Stimulation of workers by the performance they have achieved." It is derived from the Greek words στίγμα stigma "mark, sign" and ἔργον ergon "work, action", and captures the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment, signs that it and other agents sense and that determine and incite their subsequent actions.
Later on, a distinction was made between the stigmergic phenomenon, which is specific to the guidance of additional work, and the more general, non-work specific incitation, for which the term sematectonic communication was coined by E. O. Wilson, from the Greek words σῆμα sema "sign, token", and τέκτων tecton "craftsman, builder": "There is a need for a more general, somewhat less clumsy expression to denote the evocation of any form of behavior or physiological change by the evidences of work performed by other animals, including the special case of the guidance of additional work."
Stigmergic behavior in lower organisms
Stigmergy was first observed in social insects. For example, ants exchange information by laying down pheromones (the trace) on their way back to the nest when they have found food. In that way, they collectively develop a complex network of trails, connecting the nest in the most efficient way to the different food sources. When ants come out of the nest searching for food, they are stimulated by the pheromone to follow the trail towards the food source. The network of trails functions as a shared external memory for the ant colony.
In computer science, this general method has been applied in a variety of techniques called ant colony optimization, which search for solutions to complex problems by depositing "virtual pheromones" along paths that appear promising.
Other eusocial creatures, such as termites, use pheromones to build their complex nests by following a simple decentralized rule set. Each insect scoops up a 'mudball' or similar material from its environment, invests the ball with pheromones, and deposits it on the ground, initially in a random spot. However, termites are attracted to their nestmates' pheromones and are therefore more likely to drop their own mudballs on top of their neighbors'. The larger the heap of mud becomes, the more attractive it is, and therefore the more mud will be added to it (positive feedback). Over time this leads to the construction of pillars, arches, tunnels and chambers.
Stigmergy has even been observed in bacteria, various species of which differentiate into distinct cell types and which participate in group behaviors that are guided by sophisticated temporal and spatial control systems. Spectacular examples of multicellular behavior can be found among the myxobacteria. Myxobacteria travel in swarms containing many cells kept together by intercellular molecular signals. Most myxobacteria are predatory: individuals benefit from aggregation as it allows accumulation of extracellular enzymes which are used to digest prey microorganisms. When nutrients are scarce, myxobacterial cells aggregate into fruiting bodies, within which the swarming cells transform themselves into dormant myxospores with thick cell walls. The fruiting process is thought to benefit myxobacteria by ensuring that cell growth is resumed with a group (swarm) of myxobacteria, rather than isolated cells. Similar life cycles have developed among the cellular slime molds. The best known of the myxobacteria, Myxococcus xanthus and Stigmatella aurantiaca, are studied in various laboratories as prokaryotic models of development.
Stigmergy also occurs with social movements, such as the arc from Wikileaks’ cable release in Summer 2010 to the developments in global Occupy movement. The steady rise of Wikipedia and the Open Source software movement has been one of the big surprises of the 21st century, threatening stalwarts such as Microsoft and Britannica, while simultaneously offering insights into the emergence of large-scale peer production and the growth of gift economy. Bitcoin was created, and has evolved, in a stigmergic fashion, and its protocol can be used to apply this organizational structure to everyday life. The Occupy movement itself operates stigmergically, with innovations developed by one node becoming part of the total movement’s common toolkit.
Under the influence of stigmergy, new forms of governance would be based on systems, not land mass, and that governance would be generated by user groups, not elected officials. Stigmergy is the most effective way for those user groups to govern systems. Systems are currently primarily run by competitive organizations. Competition creates redundancy, is slow and wastes resources on idea protection, advertisement, and more. The alternative to competition has traditionally been collaboration. This is most effective only in groups of two to eight people. With stigmergy, an initial idea is freely given, and the project is driven by the idea, not by a personality or group of personalities. No individual needs permission (competitive) or consensus (collaborative) to propose an idea or initiate a project. For example, David Graeber's study of Betafo, a rural community in Madagascar, inspired him to launch a revolutionary Occupy Movement worldwide. Betafo is a community made up of the descendants of nobles and their slaves. Because of spending cuts mandated by the International Monetary Fund, the Malagasy central government had abandoned the area, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves. They did, creating an egalitarian society where 10,000 people made decisions by stigmergic consensus. When necessary, criminal justice was carried out by a mob, but even there a particular sort of consensus pertained: a lynching required permission from the accused’s parents.
Stigmergy is not restricted to eusocial creatures, or even to physical systems. On the Internet there are many collective projects where users interact only by modifying local parts of their shared virtual environment. Wikipedia is an example of this. The massive structure of information available in a wiki, or an open source software project such as the FreeBSD kernel could be compared to a termite nest; one initial user leaves a seed of an idea (a mudball) which attracts other users who then build upon and modify this initial concept, eventually constructing an elaborate structure of connected thoughts.
The term is also employed in experimental research in robotics, multi-agent systems and communication in computer networks. In these fields there exist two types of stigmergy: active and passive. The first kind occurs when a robotic or otherwise "intelligent" "agent" alters its environment so as to affect the sensory input of another agent. The second occurs when an agent's action alters its environment such that the environmental changes made by a different agent are also modified. A typical example of active stigmergy is leaving behind artifacts for others to pick up or follow. An example of passive stigmergy is when one agent tries to remove all artifacts from a container, while another agent tries to fill the container completely.
In addition the concept of stigmergy has also been used to describe how cooperative work such as building design may be integrated. Designing a large contemporary building involves a large and diverse network of actors (e.g. architects, building engineers, static engineers, building services engineers). Their distributed activities may be partly integrated through practices of stigmergy.
- Marsh, L. & Onof, C. (2007) "Stigmergic epistemology, stigmergic cognition." Cognitive Systems Research / doi: 10.1016/j.cogsys.2007.06.009
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- Kevin Carson | November 12th, 2011 The Stigmergic Revolution http://c4ss.org/content/8914
- Bitcoin, & Peer to Peer Governance | Sarah Handyside (Published at www.blockchange.info)
- Marsh on Wed, 02/22/2012 A proposal for governance: Concentric User Groups and Epistemic Communities http://wlcentral.org/node/2464
- Heather Marsh on Mon, 01/09/2012 A proposal for governance: Stigmergy, beyond competition and collaboration http://wlcentral.org/node/2419
- Heather Marsh on Sat, 12/24/2011 A proposal for governance in the post 2011 world "Optimism is a political act. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience." - Alex Steffen http://wlcentral.org/node/2389
- Heather Marsh on Wed, 02/22/2012 A proposal for governance: Concentric User Groups and Epistemic Communities http://wlcentral.org/node/2464
- Bennett, Drake (26 October 2011). "David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
They did, creating an egalitarian society where 10,000 people made decisions more or less by consensus.
- 2011年10月31日 《商业周刊》封面文章：占领华尔街的另类领袖 http://finance.sina.com.cn/stock/usstock/c/20111031/154810725663.shtml
- 2011.10.25 南都周刊 一个社会运动的生成 http://www.nbweekly.com/news/special/201110/27852.aspx
- Mark Elliott on stigmergy, citizen wikis, collaborative environments
- Infoworld: A conversation with Steve Burbeck about multicellular computing
- Heylighen F. (2007). Why is Open Access Development so Successful? Stigmergic organization and the economics of information, in: B. Lutterbeck, M. Baerwolff & R. A. Gehring (eds.), Open Source Jahrbuch 2007, Lehmanns Media, 2007, p. 165-180.
- Rodriguez M.A. (2008). A Collectively Generated Model of the World, in: Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace, eds. M. Tovey, pages 261-264, EIN Press, ISBN 0-9715661-6-X, Oakton, Virginia, November 2007
- Ranjbar-Sahraei, B., Weiss G., and Nakisaee, A. (2012). A Multi-Robot Coverage Approach based on Stigmergic Communication. In Proc. of the 10th German Conference on Multiagent System Technologies, Vol. 7598, pp. 126-138.
- Christensen, L. R. (2007). Practices of stigmergy in architectural work. In Proceedings of the 2007 international ACM Conference on Conference on Supporting Group Work (Sanibel Island, Florida, USA, November 04–07, 2007). GROUP 2007. ACM, New York, NY, 11-20.
- Christensen, L. R. (2008). The Logic of Practices of Stigmergy: Representational Artifacts in Architectural Design. In Proceedings of the 2008 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (San Diego, CA, USA, November 8–12, 2008). CSCW '08. ACM, New York, NY, 559-568.
- Special issue on Stigmergy at Artificial Life Journal, Eric Bonabeau (Eds.), MIT Press, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 1999.
- Stigmergic Collaboration: The Evolution of Group Work (peer-reviewed & published article)
- Stigmergy papers published on scientific commons (a growing list of published articles)