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The Ant That Went to Mars

Humanity is becoming an online species. As a result, we'll become crazier than ever. Our survival depends on it.

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
4 min read
The Ant That Went to Mars

Humanity is becoming an online species. As a result, we'll become crazier than ever. Our survival depends on it.

Every individual ant is a simple creature. But ant colonies are sophisticated organisms that thrive by processing information and constantly adapting to their environment.

Ants map a territory by walking in different directions. When one of them finds food, it walks back and leaves a trail of pheromones that other ants can smell. Other ants follow the scent toward the food's source and release their pheromones to reinforce the trail. Once the source is depleted, the trail is no longer reinforced, and other ants are more likely to look for food elsewhere.

Throughout this process, some ants continue to walk in different directions, following other trails or "taking the wrong turn" while trying to follow a specific trail. These types of navigation errors sometimes lead to the discovery of whole new sources of food.

Some ants also switch "jobs" based on the colony's needs. Ants that perform different roles emit different smells. As they walk by each other, they can sense whether there's an increase in the number of ants performing a specific role. They then adjust their own role to provide the service that seems to be in demand. For example, an ant that notes an increase in foraging ants around her will leave and begin foraging as well.

A colony is a complex organism that adapts based on an evolutionary mechanism: it tries different things (through errors), reinforces whatever seems to work and let what doesn't work die out.

Ants are an eusocial species. Such species exhibit complex social organization, with individual members performing specialized tasks. They are so specialized that most of them even forgo reproduction to fulfill their assigned tasks. Eusocial species survive by relying on a small minority (or even a single queen ant) to produce offspring while everyone else focuses on other priorities.

A single organism of an eusocial species — such as an individual ant — seems simple. But the species as a whole has incredible capabilities. Looking at the individual tells you almost nothing about what ants (plural) are capable of. It also works in reverse: seeing the complex coordination between ants, one is surprised to find that this complexity emerged from the actions of very simple creatures that follow a few basic rules without any awareness of the overall plan.

Humans are different. Humans are focused on reproducing their own genes and, at best, the survival of their tribe or — for a very brief period of history —  their fellow compatriots. Until three hundred years ago, examining an individual human would have told you most of what you needed to know about humanity — a single human can build tools, speak, manipulate objects with her fingers, jump, climb, swim, and even sing.

Groups of humans can achieve much more than separate individuals. But while group achievements used to be impressive, they were not unimaginable to anyone who ever met an individual human — and not incomprehensible to the group members themselves.

Things are different now. Humans these days are producing, together, things that each of them individually cannot comprehend. Our tasks are becoming extremely specialized. And many of us seem to forgo procreation to focus on our assigned social and economic roles. (Of course, we're only following our instincts,  desires, and values — but so are ants)

I suscept, but am not sure, that we are becoming more eusocial than social. We feel like we're becoming more unique, more different than each other. But in reality, we might be simply becoming more specialized in the service of our specie's needs.

We always resembled ants at some level: groups of humans imitated each other and fought for resources against other humans. We followed signals (social and biological) for the benefit of whatever tribe we belonged to or of whichever humans were close enough for us to see and smell and imitate.

But now, we're getting signals from far away. We imitate humans we haven't met. Our values and aspirations, and even instincts are shaped by exposure to people that have nothing in common with us.

Or so it seems.

But those people on the internet do have something in common with us: They are human. Technology now makes it possible and necessary for us to act as a coordinated species. Coordinated not through following explicit orders but through the same mechanisms that ants follow: mere exposure to each other alters our behavior. We gather signals about the places we should go to and the tasks we should perform.

Connected through the internet, the complexity of the tools and social structures that emerge is well beyond what any human can do, plan, or even imagine.

The same is true for the challenges we face. We are now able to destroy ourselves. We can do it with weapons we built, with diseases we engineer, and borne by jet airplanes to every corner of the globe almost immediately after they emerge. We can also destroy ourselves with ideas — convince ourselves to do things that are so stupid they'll kill us all.

The invention of the internet is nothing less than a biological event. It changes who we are as a species.

How can internet humans survive? We'll have to figure out how to process complex information together. And some of us will have to take larger and larger "wrong turns" — have to try more things that will likely fail in order to have a shot at finding a "path" that will save us all.

It looks like we're already doing exactly that. The past few decades haven't been pleasant. They've been disorienting. At the individual level, it feels like the world doesn't make any sense, like there is too much noise and so-called disinformation. Most of our jobs feel narrow and meaningless.

But what if we're doing exactly what we're supposed to do? An ant doesn't know what's happening or finds its job meaningful. And yet, unlike ants, humans can find beauty and meaning in anything. It looks like we're beginning to do just that.