Ant-based processing and hive minds

Image from Steve Bowers

A form of ant colony that is sophont, and possesses a unified sense of individuality , not at the level of individual ants, but at the level of their nest as a whole.

According to records stored on the first colonizing missions to Darwin, as a biological route to mesoscopic technology, early researchers of swarm technology performed experiments with ants and a number of other types of social insects in the early second century A.T., in an attempt to modify them into programmable tools on a nest or hive level. These modifications mainly consisted of giving them a more organized central command structure, so that programmed commands could be accurately implemented at the level of an individual insect, with accurate co-ordination between different parts of the nest. The insect's own pheromonal communications systems were used to achieve all of this by significantly increasing the flexibility, power and bandwidth of the colony's own communications network, and making it more two-way, providing feedback to the centre, as well as adding limited planning abilities to that centre. Each insect effectively became a cluster of nerve cells in a body that formed the nest as a whole, far more so than was the case with unmodified insects.

Because pheromonal communication is volatile, so that insects using it can tell how old each message is by the state of the chemicals involved, baseline insects use volatile pheromones to map out things such as efficient ant run systems, and by choosing the chemical composition and volatility of a pheromone message allow important data to be distinguished from the relatively trivial. This provides a means of both communication and memory in one, and this methodology was retained and expanded in the experiments on insect-tech.

Whether researchers achieved success in programming ant colonies beyond simple tasks before the dark ages is unknown. Although the efforts to create insect-tech on the colonies or orbitals of Nova Terra and Darwin had some success, particularly with ants, who were successfully turned into builders, cleaners and so on. Advances in nanotechnology soon outstripped the fledgling 'ant-tech', and the insect research saw only sporadic progress or use until the first federation. The modified ants remained as curiosities in specialised ant-farms at a number of research facilities across the solar system and beyond, but were bypassed by more sophisticated technologies.

These techniques survived the dark ages or were re-invented over the next few centuries, and ant-tech continued to be found in a number of laboratories across Terragen space. However, in a number of locations poorly-designed ant/biobot swarms had also escaped into the wild. In some places this wild ant-tech was able to compete with other wild life-forms and survived; in others it was not, and became extinct.

Because the ant-tech remained viewed as a failed pathway to swarmed forms of sophonce for millenia, rather than a subject for intensive research and development well into the first federation, the increasing sophistication of experimental colonies on the Econesium on the Museum Ship Great Green Growth didn't attract much attention, effort, or significant material support at the time beyond its local orbital polities. As the nest grew and inter-ant communications improved over the centuries , the transapient-lead Swarm-tech research collective known as Formic Thunder eventually achieved primitive but true sophoncy in the millions of ants making up the nests as a whole, some time in the seventh millennium A.T.

It took some time before the sophoncy of the nest was recognised, as well as several 'break-out's' from its ant farm, but in 7465 A.T. the fact of it became plain. It took even longer for communication to be established with the nest, but eventually this was achieved.

Once communications were established, non-invasive investigation of the Anttechian (as it had, by then, become known) showed that, although it thought slowly on an overall level, being linked purely by pheromones rather than by electrochemical signals, it could act quickly on a local level, if only in a pre-programmed way. Its primary senses were touch, smell and taste, although it had hearing and crude sight at the level of the integrated vision of all the ants making it up.

The Anttechain intelligence exhibited desires beyond survival and growth, but because it had developed on its own, in isolation from other sophont minds, the unified intelligence remained poorly socialized for decades. However, after a process of slow education within the facilities of the Great Green Growth, its intellect developed to the point that it became the equivalent of a baseline human, small hive mind, or vot hive with equivalent capabilities. It learned from the people there, while they, in turn, learned from it.

In time the original Anttechian split into two, and those into more, and Anttechians began to spread out into the wider universe. By the present day. they have established a number of small polities of their own, scattered through Terragen space, but are also found in any number of mixed-species polities throughout the Terragen sphere.

The original Anttechians showed little interest in the other non-sophont ant-tech projects scattered in laboratories across Terragen space, And despite attempts by some research groups or provolution institutes to develop similar forms of sophoncy, independent of the original Anttechians and using documentation from the original ascension mazes, Anttechians usually deny the validity of any other results, and consider any attempts not descended from the original hive to be disorganized, non-conscious "zombie hives".

The time it takes for an Anttechian to respond to its surroundings in an 'interactive' (that is, not pre-programmed) manner depends on how spread out the members of the nest are. If they are all fairly close together, the time is in the seconds. If they are further away, this time can rise to at least tens of seconds to several minutes. In a nest where the inter-ant communications links are (for example) carried by radio rather than by means of pheromones the Anttechian will react much more quickly than this.

When an Anttechian is spread out in its 'normal operating mode', the individual ants making it up cannot be pre-programmed subtly enough for detailed, intricate tasks such as surgery or debugging faulty microtech; the work must be done 'interactively', and thus slowly. However, given advance notice that it will be needing to do something this complex, a nest can reconfigure itself into a compact configuration, cutting down communications lags sufficiently that it can operate significantly faster than normal, so that although it is not doing subtle pre-programming of its individual ants it is controlling them much more in 'real time'.

It is also possible for a large nest (one considerably larger than that needed to simply be sophont) to, with training and mental discipline, use the raw processing power it has available more efficiently by subdividing its mental processes and thus multi-tasking. For example, the nest as a whole is too slow to perform exploratory surgery. However, if it concentrates part of itself at the surgery site and pre-programs those ants with the general goal of the surgery, they can then take that goal and program themselves in detail to carry it out, forming a kind of programmable subconscious.

The original Anttechians had problems with all their ants using the same pheromonal code as each other, meaning that individual Anttechian nests had to stay a fair distance apart, otherwise the ants making them up would begin to receive and respond to each others communications. Later modifications to themselves have eliminated this problem, giving each Anttechian a unique identifier used on all pheromonal communications. Now ants only have a problem when two nests are sufficiently close that the pheromones from one swamp those from the other, leading to the ants from the swamped individual being unable to 'hear' the Anttechian they are part of.

Because of these and the other disadvantages of pheromonal over other means of communication, the majority of modern sophont Anttechians move from pheromone-based communications to something faster and more efficient as soon as they can.

Anttechians are immortal, depending on the lives of the individual ants that make them up. Because they use biological memory systems, individuals can easily forget information without artificial aides, and will change radically in their personalities over the centuries- like many other sophonts with similar lifespans.

Their main method of breeding is by fission of the nest, with all the new Anttechians being copies of the original. This does cause some temporary reduction in the intellect of the new individuals (in a fashion that is non-linear with numbers), until the numbers are made up, but as fission is normally a planned process, the 'parent' Anttechian will usually increase the number of ants making it up to compensate for this intellect reduction as much as it can.

Alternatively, an Anttechian can reproduce by breeding swarms of new queens and males called alates that then leave it to mate and form new nests elsewhere. Obviously these new nests are essentially babies, and must be raised into full sophoncy like any other child.

It takes decades for an entirely new nest (one founded by alates rather than by fission of an existing nest) to grow up to a baseline level; this growing up consists mainly of communications optimisation once the nest reaches its adult size. Anttechians created by fission of an existing nest will be at essentially the same level as their progenitor right away.

Because of their asexual natures and immortality, Anttechians do not need socialize broadly with the rest of society as much as, for example, baseline humans. However, they are by no means solipsist, and do co-operate with other sophonts on larger projects where they know they will be stronger en masse, or where there are things to be learned. They form 'families' based on lines of descent from the original Anttechian.

Some Anttechians have permanent nests, others do not. Many are masters of mesoscopic technology.

"Cyborged" Anttechians often incorporate non-biological computronium, sensors and effectors directly into themselves. This is particularly used to improve inter-ant communication, allowing larger and faster nests. Some Anttechians have achieved higher toposophic levels, and others have abandoned organic form altogether, shifting their minds into nests made up of masses of tiny ant remotes, or into virches.

The first Anttechian to achieve transapience ascended after decades of deliberate study and modification within the Yan Nassir Ascension Maze , in the Zoeific-aligned System of the Heavenly swarm. While increasing its size in preparation to undergo fission to split into two new colonies, the level of 'neural' interconnectivity between the colony's individual ant-units increased geometrically, as it normally expands under these circumstances, but this time with additional computational infrastructure, swarm organization, and a redesign of the individual ants' brain architectures. Just as the colony was about to undergo fission and split into two new separate sophont-level individuals, it added a whole new layer of consciousness and breached the first toposophic barrier, becoming transapient in the space of a few days. It quickly decided to remain as one colony rather than lose this overwhelming and intoxicating degree of enlightenment, lucidity, and clarity that it had achieved. This colony has since remained together as one, not 'budding-off' any new individuals, and produced new individual ants within itself only as necessary to maintain its numbers.

There have been a number of other, similar cases of Anttechians undergoing transcension, and retaining some semblance to their previous physical and mental identity. In fact, the overwhelming majority of fissions to become new individuals occur without incident, and the process alone does not induce ascension. The overwhelming majority of their transcensions, and ascensions, occur in a more planned fashion and does not necessarily have to involve attempted fissions.

At this time, no one, including the Anttechians themselves, has revealed why transcension attempts that involve attempted fissions have notably greater success rates than attempts that do not. The few transapient Anttechians who have achieved their state in this way are silent on the matter, if they know themselves.

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Development Notes
Text by Tony Jones
Initially published on 23 December 2003.

Minor edits November 2022 by Worldtree to make any ascension/ transcension intentional rather than spontaneous, and moving early Provolution later in the timeline