My previous post on The invisible hand created several interesting discussions (thanks Andy, Peter, John, Alex and Mark) and I would like to share some of it with the rest of you. Peter (Evans-Greenwood, CTO Capgemini Australia) brought up the interesting theory of swarm intelligence and I’ll quote Wikipedia to bring you quickly up to date:
“Swarm intelligence (SI) is artificial intelligence based on the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems. … SI systems are typically made up of a population of simple agents interacting locally with one another and with their environment. The agents follow very simple rules, and although there is no centralized control structure dictating how individual agents should behave, local interactions between such agents lead to the emergence of complex global behavior. Natural examples of SI include ant colonies, bird flocking, animal herding, bacterial growth, and fish schooling.”
To extend the list of “natural examples”, I would like to add “Mumbai drivers” as well. If I may. Andy (Mulholland, Global CTO Capgemini) replied on Peter’s comment: “I had not thought of swarm theory for Mumbai traffic but now that it is raised it makes perfect sense”. And it does make sense, really!

  • “The agents follow very simple rules”: Mumbai drivers honk in all situations to warn others
  • “no centralized control structure dictating how individual agents should behave”: very true, haven’t seen any speed camera or police controls
  • And the best one: “local interactions between such agents lead to the emergence of complex global behavior”: As John pointed out in his link that he supplied in the comments, it is the selfishness of the individual that drives a knowledge base, or applied to Mumbai traffic: “The Mumbai traffic participants are selfish in the sense that they do not want THEIR car to be damaged, thus resulting that other cars don’t get damaged either.” This all leads to a situation where there are not that many accidents as you’d expect. The selfish drive for self preservation, benefits the whole system.

Alex added a link to a blog entry of the Austrian Economists that did an experiment with speed limits on a highway. On a highway where the speed limit was 50 MPH, everyone was driving 70 and the traffic was flowing rather well. As an experiment, four cars drove 50 MPH just next to each other and thus blocking the traffic, it created a huge traffic jam. If you apply this to Mumbai traffic, you can easily see that there is a much higher throughput possible in this seamlessly chaotic situation. Because they are not following the lanes, speed limits or anything else, but just take every millimeter that is possible and honk their way through traffic.
A question that I still have is whether this selfishness or self-preservation attitude from people always creates an optimum? Or better said, in what situations is this behavior desirable? Could you build your commercial software like this? What I think is that you have to distinct two main categories:

  • The team or group is more important than the individual: think about commercial software development and sports teams. Of course you need to have expert developers or star players, but in these two cases, the group aspect outweighs the individual aspect. A nice example is a soccer club that has only the best players of the world in the team. When you look then sometimes at their ranking and game play, you see that each individual is brilliant but there are too many egos walking on the field. 11 brilliant soccer players do not make a brilliant soccer team. The same applies to commercial software teams: if you have five superstar developers that can think of the most incredible algorithms, it is no guarantee that your project is finished in time and in budget.
  • The notion of “group” is actually just a side effect of similar behaving individuals, e.g. Mumbai traffic. No Mumbai trafficker wakes up and thinks “well let’s create a cozy group of mad-driving cars and rickshaws today”. The same applies to economics: a business man’s primary goal is not to create a perfect running economy, but to maximize its business’ profits. But in order to maximize its profits it has to participate in the market workings of supply and demand and thus aid in reaching an optimum. Not because he wants to, but because of selfishness. A good working economy creates a stable environment and thus a higher chance of profits.

To which category does an open source software project belong to? My first reaction is to say the second, but the more I think about it, I’m rather going for the first category. Because when you look at big successful open source projects, they are all managed by either a commercial company, a governing body, some strong community leaders or other way of centrally coordinated effort. True, you see a mixture with the second category in the sense that they often make use of these individuals that are in it out of selfishness. However selfishness in the broadest sense: pride or honor, improving own skills, community recognition or just because they really need that particular feature. Luckily the open source community is mainly driven by the last group that contribute code that was made because of something that THEY needed.
I did put the commercial software development in the first category, but would it be possible to have a commercial project that is driven by selfishness of the individual?