I watched something pretty amazing on TV last night – gestalt Pong. The footage was of a demonstration, or experiment, run by a computer graphics specialist, Loren Carpenter. Five thousand people file into a conference room; on each chair they find a little paddle, red on one side, green on the other. At the back of the room a camera linked to computers scans the crowd and monitors the position of each paddle, and whether the person holding it has it displaying its red or green face. At first this information is simply translated into a red or green pixel on a screen in front of the participants, by flipping one’s paddle back and forth each person can locate ‘their’ pixel on-screen. Then, with nothing more than a request for the number 5, everyone flips their paddle based on their position and, with a little experimentation, the number resolves itself. With a little practice the participants can bring up any shape or figure requested extremely quickly, all with no planning or organisation.
Things get freaky when a game of Pong is put on the screen. The crowd is dived into left and right; displaying the red side of your paddle ‘votes’ to move the Pong bat upwards, displaying green is a ‘vote’ to move the virtual bat down. But if all the participants on one side show red the bat moves up extremely quickly to the top of the screen - a mixture of green and red is required to move the bat with more finesse. None of this is explained. Loren has simply put up a game of Pong and said “folks on the left of the auditorium control the left bat; folks on the right control the right bat. Go!” Thirty seconds later the crowd is playing an increasingly quick and skillful game of Pong.
Flocking patterns can be simulated with simple rules, but what is the rule that governs the Pong players? A small percentage of the group unknowingly reversing the directions (believing that, by displaying the red side of their paddle they are moving the Pong bat down, when in fact they are voting to move it up) providing the balance to move the bat more fluidly? This seems less likely than the more unlikely explanation – that two ‘mob intelligences’ are somehow playing the game. Awesome.
Related (and unverified) folklore….
- a swarm of bees is as intelligent as a dog
- the part of the brain that causes you to yawn when you see someone else yawn is the same part that is involved in the flocking of birds