One of the most quoted examples in The Medici Effect is the ants-and-truck-drivers case. R&D engineer Eric Bonabeau met ecologist Guy Theraulaz and learned how ants find the quickest route to food. The result of the ecology-mathematics intersection that was born in that meeting was that Bonabeau a couple of years of hard work later helped introducing the new field “swarm intelligence”. Basically, the concept is to mimic the collective behaviour of swarm insects and in The Medici Effect it is described how such models are used to optimize different kinds of transport.
But swarm intelligence has expanded rapidly and has turned out to be a very fruitful discipline with a growing number of rather diverse applications. Since it can be used to find the most efficient route for trucks it is easy to accept that it can also improve distribution of information on the web or optimize connections in telecom networks. However, there are more complex uses.
For example, it can make groups of small, simple robots solve quite difficult tasks. One of the pioneers in the field, Marco Dorigo, professor at Université Libre de Bruxelles, uses his invention Ant Colony Optimization to make the robots perform collectively - they can connect to each other in order to climb over obstacles or cooperate to carry heavy objects. Simon Garnier at Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse is another researcher who applies swarm intelligence to robots – and people! Not surprisingly, ant behaviour can be compared to human behaviour in crowded situations. Knowledge of this can be used to optimize evacuation plans or help understand why and how a calm situation can become dangerous when panic spreads in a crowd.
Even human decision making may be explained with swarm intelligence. David Sumpter, at Uppsala University bases his research on the fact that swarms have no distinct leaders and decisions are made "democratically". A model that is based on the collective decisions of groups of hens proved to predict decision making processes between EU nations with impressive accuracy. Some, of course, might argue this that says more about Europeans than about the model, but basically the model shows that people tend to imitate the decisions of others. And that is arguably global human behaviour.
Anyway, the prosperity and versatility of swarm intelligence makes it a good example of the innovative power of intersections. The discipline was born because individuals had the courage to break out of their networks and make new connections. And this was as a late as the early nineties. The projects described above is only a selection of examples from what The Medici Effect calls an explosion of ideas.