Digitally Evolving To Be A Specialist

Now we have organisms in our computers digitally evolving to be a specialist. Division of labor is usually seen as efficient. We laud creatures from insects to captains of industry for operating highly differentiated systems. However it is difficult to start at time zero and run experiments with people or insects.

As a result the computer has come to our rescue once again and we will see if Adam Smith and evolution give us the same end point. Goldsby et al in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science have given over their computer as a safe haven for digital organisms to evolve in peace, free from predators whether free market or hungry critters (though perhaps these two are the same)(1).

The starting points are colonies whose members can send or receive messages so the cost of changing to a different task is known. This knowledge isn’t lost, but gets established in the genome so that subsequent generations can build on decisions made by previous generations. There were 7 discrete logic tasks to get on with. Different experiments put moderate or high cost on task switching.

The control had no cost for switching so an organism could do whatever was needed in its location and could thus evolve into a generalist colony with everybody tackling everything whenever it came along.

The cost of task switching was written in as a delay of so many turns before the organism could start its new task. These delays were bad news for the colony that would be slower to prosper and the colony had to decide whether the task urgency outweighed the delay, and then store its knowledge in its genome for the benefit of future generations. A high cost meant waiting 50 turns, while the moderate cost meant waiting 25 turns.

Of course the inevitable happened – evolution towards specialist colonies with a strong division of labor. The higher the cost, the faster the evolution occurred. Communication was important in that it enabled synergies to work where groups managed to be more successful than individuals stuck without good communication.

Looks good for Adam Smith, but the problem comes in determining costs of switching in the broader sense. It’s not just the cost to the colony, or worse the colony owner, but the cost to the individual is forgotten. A termite, an ant or a bee doesn’t have quite the same desires and ambitions as an assembly worker in a car plant.


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