Alien Profile: The Mindswarm

The following article was written by Steven Lyle Jordan as an entry to the Alien August competition.

The Mindswarm were discovered upon Mankind’s initial arrival at Gliese, and was therefore one of the first extra-terrestrial life forms discovered by Man during his initial exploration of the galaxy.  A Mindswarm is not a single entity, but a vast collection of individuals that can act as one.

Biology

An individual is referred to as a “cell”: Approximately .5 millimeters long, with a chitinous outer layer, two jointed legs, two sets of tiny wings that sustain flight, and a third set of vestigial wings that are used to generate vibrations in the air around them.  Other than their protruding wings, there is little else to see on the body of the cell except for a thin membrane that is apparently a vibration-capturing “ear.”  The cell is believed to be at least partially photo-sensitive, based on evidence of their activity around light sources, but the actual mechanism through which they detect light is unknown.  The membrane is also partially porous: The cell draws dust-mote-sized nutrients in the air into its body through the pores; and expels waste in the same manner.

Though an individual cell seems to be able to detect light, move independently and avoid obstacles with relative skill, when isolated they don’t do much.  However, it is when they swarm that they prove the incredible abilities of their species.  Swarms can be so dense as to be opaque to light, and can number from the ten-thousands to the tens of millions at any one time.  A swarm is malleable, changing shape and breaking into smaller swarms that might go off on their own, rejoin the swarm later, or join with another swarm elsewhere.

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Society

Most importantly, when Mindswarms swarm, they begin to act as an individual unit.  Scientists discovered that cells pass information back and forth through a language of vibrations created by their functional and vestigial wings.  Cells not only create complex harmonics between their real and vestigial wings, but they will alter those harmonics depending on the vibrations and harmonics of other cells in their vicinity.  In this way, they pass complex information to each other, intercepted by their “ear” membranes.

It is unknown how complex this vibration-based information is… but it is enough to direct the actions of the swarm and its individuals, allowing them to act as a unit to investigate their environment, share information on food sources and environmental conditions, and even to manipulate their environment.  Swarms have been documented in complex joint maneuvers, wherein cells will grab each other with their feet and form a mass capable of moving objects.  Swarms have been seen to form shapes akin to fingers, arms, walls and spheres, then apply those shapes to objects in their environment, allowing them to build simple barriers around their underground nests, and even “false nests” designed to lure away predators.

Intelligence

Most fascinatingly, Mindswarms will often adopt a shape, resembling the organization of a Buckminster-Fullerene molecule, that scientists have not been able to trace to any analogue in the Mindswarm’s world, but which seems to be used when the Mindswarm is engaged in non-survival-related communications.  Scientists’ recordings of the vibratory communications carried on in this configuration have detected notably different tones and harmonics from those usually heard when the swarm is working on a physical task together.  It has been speculated that the shape may facilitate abstract thought or even discussion and debate among the cells… though whether they are debating the meaning of the universe, or the most likely direction to go to find new food sources, is anybody’s guess.

Humans and Mindswarms have so far found no common ground for communication; and the Mindswarms have apparently no interest in interaction with humans, which makes engaging them for attempts at communication or testing their capabilities difficult.  Individual cells seem to be unable to communicate when separated from the swarm; it’s as if proximity is required in order to prompt it to speak to its brothers.  Human attempts to simulate Mindswarm vibrations don’t seem to fool cells… possibly interpreted as gibberish, they are subsequently ignored.  And Mindswarms have made no attempt to mimic the simpler vibrations of human speech.  (Chances are the differences in frequency modulations between the micro-sized cells and human vocal cords is impossible for the cells to detect, or to make sense of… akin to humans trying to make sense out of the vibratory sound patterns caused by the wind blowing through the trees.)

But it is hoped that one day Humans and Mindswarms will be able to at least maintain simple communications between each other, perhaps being able to provide assistance or warning to the other, or even to teach the other basic survival techniques.


Article written by Steven Lyle Jordan.

Steven is the author of the successful “The Kestral Voyages” series, “Verdant Skies“, and many other popular works of fiction. He regularly blogs both here at SciFi Ideas and on his own blog.

 

  • Very interesting indeed. The “swarm/ collective” intelligence concept has been used before and almost every “Sci FI” Universe has some kind of Hive civilizaton. Yet I think this is a very intelligent and fresh approach. Perhaps the most “somehow” plausible of them all. I really like the fact that the author stayed away from “psionics”.(Even though an element in my own Universe) it is often used as a “convenient stand by medium” if something is hard to explain.

    While these “Mindswarmss” could of course have such abilities, they seem not to be needed.
    The idea of Buckminster-Fullerene molecule constructs; hints in a terrific scientific “what if” possibility; how they do achieve these higher( perhaps even cognitive) behavior patterns. If not an explanation but with perhaps seed the concept of an idea inn the readers mind ( Sorry but this is nothing less than a stroke of pure genius. Akin to literary pears found in the works of the grand masters of fiction)

    Why?

    Anyone loving Hard SF enjoys reading the what if scenarios dreamed up by minds of similar founded interests. The mention of the Buckminster-Fullerene molecule sets a chain of thought in motion and with the detailed information about their “mysterious” behavior conjures images and concepts that linger even after competing the article. Because (And I almost hope I am right at least in concept) that he meant these BMF shapes to be the synaptic nodes, analogs of the many synaptic nodes of a sentient mind., complete with perhaps a “seed” or “Master bug” in the very center of the BMF analog (as there is an atom/ molecule within the BMF). The BMF shape with a “core” could be simultaneous shielded in a “micro Faraday cage” and yet able to connect to a synaptic network.

    This is about as cutting edge hard core Neuro science as it gets..

    If this entry is not within the finalist, it certainly would be worth the center of an Adult – level – Top shelf SF (not Sci Fi) story. ( I certainly would buy)
    Applause — no Standing Ovation indeed!

    VR

    • Kirov

      I agree, this one is pretty plausible and well thought out. My only critique is how they communicate via vibrations. We do the same thing, but I feel on such a massive scale involving millions of vibrations from individual cells all at once, any meaningful information would become distorted before it could be transmitted from cell to cell. It would be like trying to isolate a single voice in a full football stadium, then trying to relay that information to the next person while everyone else is trying to do the same thing. With a physical connection like neurons, you bypass the problem of interference, since the firing of one neuron doesn’t affect a parallel neuron.

      • Vibrations are not the same as sound. There are snakes that are deaf but can detect the faintest vibration caused by a mouse seven feet away, People who are born completely deaf can sense “vibrations” even those caused by loud speakers… but they can;t hear. In your football stadium analog , the wall of voices become a mix indeed, but if an event occurs on the playing field such as a goal or a foul, there is a collective reaction and suddenly 30,000 individual voices become one and yell “goal” this is a collective stimulus. Humans behave completely different in crowds than they do individually (there is an entire science branch of psychology and sociology researching this )
        A Shark can pick out the impulse of a single wounded fish out of a school of thousands.
        A bat can echo locate its surroundings and adapt its flight pattern to evade obstacles, detect prey in a swarm of thousands of bats (each bat doing the same thing) How do you think the bats do it without bumping into cave walls all the time? No there is not a master bat that tells them to shut up and do it one bat at a time…
        The bat is indeed capable of isolating its own echo cry from the million signals.
        And that bat brain is not much bigger than a pea.
        Your I phone does a similar thing, in terms of signal differentiation. So when you call your girl friend, Steve your neighbor isn’t listening in….at least if jhe does not have a scanner… So there are both biological ways and technical ways of signal isolation.
        I could write an entire article about this and go intomn detail why Vibrations and sounds are related but not the same…
        So a “brain” based on vibration interaction could at least work in theory (not as fast though ….)

        VR

        • Kirov

          I’ll concede that a brain specifically adapted to such communication should be capable of it. But I would like to point out that from a physical interpretation of sound and vibrations, they’re the same thing, seeing as sound is a pressure wave travelling though some medium, same as a vibration. If you define sound as the sensory perceptions of vibrations, then I suppose there is a difference. Regardless, they perceive the vibrations through a membrane described as an “ear,” and I assume those vibrations are travelling through air. I would call that hearing. Also, I’m offended that you would accuse me of owning an iPhone.

          • Vibration is: the oscillating, reciprocating, or other periodic motion of a rigid orelastic body or medium forced from a position or state ofequilibrium

            Sound Vibration is the analogous motion of the particles of a mass of air or the like,whose state of equilibrium has been disturbed, as in transmitting sound.

            Sound can only be detected by your ears and the effect is “hearing”

            Vibrations can be detected by touch and the effect is “feeling”

            Vibrations are only part of sound. Sound also carries modulation (soundwave)

            While a vibration can be disharmonic and does not need modulation.

            Example the Vibration part of a tremor – Earthquake can be detected by seismic sensors – A seismic sensor is incapable of detecting sound

            As I stated sound and vibrations are related but are not the same.But I understand your objection input and I appologize using a “brand name”. It works with all cell phones or “dedicated transmitters” (As compared to CB)

      • Hmm. Fair point. I wonder if forming a bucky-ball would improve the acoustics at all, helping them communicate more effectively.

        • Perhaps not the sound but as building element of a three dimensional multi level grid (lattice) in which the MIndswarm bugs create a synaptic net analog and thus gain collective sentience, A “Bucky Ball” is a grid cage after all and contains a core element in its center. (perhaps a “leader bug” or something)

      • Paulo R. Mendes

        It would be interesting if instead of vibrations, the Mindswarm used pheromones – this way each individual “cell” would have its own chemical identity avoiding the problem with vibration based communication.

    • I agree!
      The use of vibration/sound makes perfect sense and is much more believable than psyonics. I can actually imagine this species evolving right here on Earth. I can imagine us all watching YouTube videos of the strange and fascinating experiments being done conducted to test their social intelligence (and probably sharing them on SciFi Ideas). I can imagine the headline on link-bait sites – “Amazing! Watch how this Mindswarm responds to the vibrations of [inset popular musician here]”.

      • Well I did try to defend Psionics in a different thread …obviously not very convincing… And the only hurdle for these Mindbugs would be size and speed. Vibrations do not move at the speed of light (like brain impulses do) and thus a larger brain woud think very slow…Still capable of sentient thought but not capable of reacting to a very fast changing situation. So the Mindswarm still might develop something akin to Psionics to make larger swarms work in terms of cognitive and fast thought process. (they are after all not physically connected and no radio waves would not work.
        But yes I certainly agree, this has the flavor of something actual and near future

      • The Sun : “Scientists confirmed Mindswarm bugs of Gliese more intelligent than the Kardashians” — The Daily Mirror :” Simon says Mindswarm bugs have talent!”
        Iron Chef: ” Mindswarm bugs enjoyed by the Chinese…on a stick”

  • Great article!
    Personally, I think I’d have liked a little more advanced intelligence / culture, and maybe a little more human interaction. But both of those have been hinted at, and in a way that leads very easily into a story idea. If/when scientists are able to crack the Mindswarm “language” they might be able to manipulate them to form certain tasks (although militarized death-swarms are probably not an option since they eat dust). And if we could introduce them to some human concepts it might set in motion a very rapid social evolution.
    I guess that would be similar to the way in which various nanobot swarms have evolved in several works of science fiction, but it’d be interesting to see it happen to a non-machine intelligence which doesn’t simply mimic its creators.

    Another interesting possibility is if these creatures were able to manipulate their surroundings in any way (that being key to developing advanced intelligence as we know it). Could they maybe “farm” by rotating which areas they feed from and by creating dust-devils to whip up and harvest nutrients from the dirt?

  • Here is an excerpt of a story of mine.
    I am posting it because of Mark’s comment “weaponizing ” the critters.
    It seems Mark is indeed a real “Terran”….

    A group of characters are about to visit “Trash Island” on a very lawless planet:

    …..One of the scientists sat next to me. She was maybe a dress size two and if it wasn’t for her older looking face, she could easily be taken for a teenager. She brushed a lock of her chestnut brown hair out of her face. She had long thin fingers and a doll like appearance. She was excited and said to me: “Thank you Captain for making this opportunity available to us. You see, every type of vermin you could think of has been brought here to SIN 4, either by accident or on purpose. There are no hygiene or import rules. And for over five hundred years they have been dumping trash and waste on this island along with life forms from all across the Galaxy. I can’t wait to see how Terran rats
    have adapted to this environment.”
    I shivered, involuntarily remembering the white tentacle thing in the sewers, and said:”To each its own. I guess everyone needs a hobby.”
    She smiled. “Captain, I am a Xeno-biologist and to me such things are quite fascinating. About sixty years ago there was a Galactic Geographic Expedition to Sin 4 and they focused on Trash Island and found some of the strangest life forms there. It was never done again, because two Expedition members got killed, most of the gear stolen and two abducted for ransom. So I look forward to see what has changed and what is still there.”
    “I am always amazed what scientists find fascinating.”
    “You have seen the landing field? It is cracked and large patches are corroded and disintegrated into to dust.”
    I nodded.” I have.
    Knowing this planet, I am surprised they have one in the first place.”
    “It was built by Karthanian engineers about 500 years ago in the hopes to get this planet chosen as the meeting place for the Big Four.
    The material used is very similar to our Duro-Crete and should
    have lasted thousands of years. But someone imported a mineral eating microbe and it mated with another perhaps local micro organism and the new life form emerged that finds the polymer compounds used in
    that Kartanian Concrete especially delicious. The result is crumbling and cracking concrete.”
    I raised an eyebrow.”Now that is actually interesting, if that microbe could be altered and delivered by bombs. It could turn an entire Spaceport to dust.”
    Krabbel laughed. “Our Captain really is a real Terran! The first thing they always think of is how something could be used as a weapon!”
    I shrugged:” It was a logical conclusion was it not?”
    Narth raised his head: “Indeed especially logical to Terrans.”

    (YEP IT SEEMS MARK WOULD FIT RIGHT IN…AND COULD NOT REALLY HIDE FROM WHERE HE IS FROM)

    The chestnut haired Xeno-biologist said. “Also, we can devise materials immune to these effects. These microbes are just one example. There is a common weed on Terra called Dandelion. .It too found its way to Sin 4 and it
    has developed a symbiosis with a flesh eating plant. Now the little seed pods that look so lovely on Earth carry tiny flesh eating pods that instantly burrow into unprotected skin and cause serious infections.”
    Dien Tallow turned in his seat to add his expertise and he said. “The standard hygiene procedures developed for all Union ships are based on such research.
    Did you know that the Tigershark, for example, has special anti contamination systems fitted to our Landing gear wells;; or that the decontamination fields and harmful aerosol scan procedures that are strictly observed by your Environmental Engineers were all developed using research like that.”
    …..

    VR

    • michael pulleine

      have you noticed that any story referring to a human as a terran will almost always have the humans as evil?

      • Well Terrans / Earthers are the central society in my stories and they are what they are. Doesn’t matter if the Aliens are the Borg, Klingons, Alien Xenomorphs, Predators, Giant Ants or IT from “Outer Space” it seems Humans overcome whatever monster they face. And no Horror movie or slash and gore film can hold a candle to the real horrors of war.
        There is an old Ult saying in my universe: “Those monkey boys from Earth always talk how peaceful they are, but they must because they are so terribly good at war.”
        There is a big difference between a “race” of warriors and a race of “soldiers” …the latter is superior to the first.
        And lets face it, we humans made an art out of war.
        So of course I don’t know any “real” alien society I can compare “us” humans with…but in my “Universe~ there are many warrior species and and lots of hostile and aggressive species, but “my” Terrans are the “real bad ass species” Which is actually sort of cool….again in my opinion.

        Ever watched the movie “Stage Coach”? When the Bugle of the US Cavalry sounds in the last possible moment before impending doom? Or the USS Enterprise with Captain Riker blasts the Klingon War birds..or or or.. there are these scenes when Ellen Ripley smacks the Xenomorph and gives her famous line? Maybe its just me, but I always loved scenes like that.

        • Kirov

          Humans really are creatures of war. Even when I try to avoid military sci-fi in my writing, it always comes back to it somehow. My writing style is to just start writing and see where things go on their own, but there are so many factors influencing me towards war, that’s almost always where my writing ends up. Of course, the cutthroat philosophy of darwinism almost demands that any advanced civilization be proficient in war. Any that aren’t will eventually be overrun by those that are.

          “It’s so simple. Elegant like a knife point. It explains – this is not hyperbole, this is the farthest thing from exaggeration – EVERYTHING.

          But you lay it out and they stare at you like you’ve just been exhaling dust.

          Maybe they’re missing some underlying scaffold of truth. Maybe they are all propped on a bed of lies that must be burned away.

          Why does anything exist?

          No no no no no don’t reach for that word. There’s no ‘reason’.

          That’s teleology and teleology will stitch your eyelids shut.

          Why do we have atoms? Because atomic matter is more stable than the primordial broth.

          Atoms defeated the broth. That was the first war. There were two ways to be and one of them won. And everything that came next was made of atoms.

          Atoms made stars. Stars made galaxies. Worlds simmered down to rock and acid and in those smoking primal seas the first living molecule learned to copy itself.

          All of this happened by the one law, the blind law, which exists without mind or meaning. It’s the simplest law but it has no worshippers here (out there, though, out there – !)

          HOW DO I EXPLAIN IT it’s so simple WHY DON’T YOU SEE

          Imagine three great nations under three great queens. The first queen writes a great book of law and her rule is just. The second queen builds a high tower and her people climb it to see the stars. The third queen raises an army and conquers everything.

          The future belongs to one of these queens. Her rule is harshest and her people are unhappy. But she rules.

          This explains everything, understand? This is why the universe is the way it is, and not some other way. Existence is a game that everything plays, and some strategies are winners: the ability to exist, to shape existence, to remake it so that your descendants – molecules or stars or people or ideas – will flourish, and others will find no ground to grow.

          And as the universe ticks on towards the close, the great players will face each other.

          In the next round there will be three queens and all of them will have armies, and now it will be a battle of swords – until one discovers the cannon, or the plague, or the killing word.

          Everything is becoming more ruthless and in the end only the most ruthless will remain (LOOK UP AT THE SKY) and they will hunt the territories of the night and extinguish the first glint of competition before it can even understand what it faces or why it has transgressed. This is the shape of victory: to rule the universe so absolutely that nothing will ever exist except by your consent. This is the queen at the end of time, whose sovereignty is eternal because no other sovereign can defeat it. And there is no reason for it, no more than there was reason for the victory of the atom. It is simply the winning play.

          Of course, it might be that there was another country, with other queens, and in this country they sat down together and made one law and one tower and one army to guard their borders. This is the dream of small minds: a gentle place ringed in spears.

          But I do not think those spears will hold against the queen of the country of armies.

          And that is all that will matter in the end.”

          • Kirov

            Didn’t mean to imply that was my own writing, that’s why I put it in quotes. Bonus points if you know what it’s from, though. And Vanessa, is your piece a WIP, cause I would be interested in reading more of it.

            • Captain Stella Summers , stood before her command chair. Her black uniform immaculate as she watched the planet centered on the main screen getting bigger.
              “Mr. T’Thakk inform command that we are here and have them confirm the termination order.”
              The ant-like Klack at the Communication station confirmed the order and opened a channel to Central Command. “This is the USS Hammerfaust, approaching mission target. Requesting confirmation of the termination order.”

              “This is Central Command ; verification codes are confirmed. All occupied planets and moons of the system are confirmed targets, commence termination. Crustbusters and P-Bombs authorized.”

              “Captain, Command is giving us the green light. Admiral Stahl’s commence code has been verified.”

              “Open bomb drawers one to five”, Came the next command from Captain Summers.

              The weapon systems officer of the planet bomber touched the necessary controls on his station. On each side of the ships boxy hull, thousand meter long panels opened and huge racks were pushed out like the drawers on an old fashioned file storage. Each of the racks held two thousand warheads; forty ton self-propelled crust buster bombs. Each of these Deep Penetrators held enough energy to pulverize a small moon.

              At the belly of the ship, drop shafts opened and a conveyor system moved the first P-Bombs into position.

              Captain Summers was well aware of the gravity of her next order. She had given this order seven times in the last six months of this war.

              She still had a dry throat and nodded. “Helm steady as she goes; Mr. Blueroom commence drop.”

              The Takkian at the ships helm corrected the ships course slightly to remain on the best attack vector. The Quadri-PedLieutenant named Blueroom began by opening the protective cover of the rack release. Blueroom passed one of his hands with an elegant motion across the cluster lights before him. This action turned the clustered instruments from green to red.

              Mechanical claws opened and fusion pulse motors ignited, each propelling the bombs to 80 percent of light speed.

              “Helm, turn her to Helio center and increase speed to 20 percent light.” Summers commanded.

              The silicone being that looked very much like a petrified walking pine cone at the helm station confirmed the order and the huge ship majestically turned its bow towards the systems GIII type star .

              The blue and green world spun below was the birth planet of a space traveling civilization. It now wandered off the main screen to be suddenly lit up with thousands of little bright lights sprouted on its surface. The P-Bombs had ignited nuclear fires all over the beautiful world.

              Billions of tons of ocean water turned to superheated steam in seconds obscuring the continents and the surface in a matter of moments. Then the Penetrators reached the liquid core after tunneling through miles of planetary crust. In an almost surreal image, the continental plates were outlined in bright white. It was then as if creation itself paused to sigh; the entire planet seemed to contract ever so slightly, but only to expand a few moments later and the entire planet exploded in a cloud of elemental fire.

              A spherical cloud of fire and burning matter replaced what once was a cradle of life.

              True, the USS Hammerfaust had a crew of over 500 beings from all over the Union , but everyone knew this was the kind of war only Terrans fought, utterly brutal, relentless and total.

              The USS Hammerfaust obliterated two more planets in the system known to hold Itkkme industry, mines and settlements before accelerating to threshold speed and disappearing into Quasi Space.

              Seventy Itkkme miners on the systems smallest planet were the only survivors. They stared in absolute horror into the night sky as 5 hours later the light of the destruction of their home world reached their little outpost.

            • It is both: I am currently rewriting my story(ies) for publishing but here is the original old version:

              https://www.fictionpress.com/s/3176944/1/GC-00-Benny-Nash-Special-Edition-of-GC-10

            • Toland, The Shattered, The Exiled, Master of Hive Arcana

        • michael pulleine

          I haven’t seen alien, what’s the famous line? also, yes, of course I love movies like that! last stands are, in my opinion, the most epic and, in some cases, harrowing of all scenes, I do also love a killer one liner to end it! like black beards “well done boy, well done…” or captain Ahabs last words

  • Leonardo Faria

    Very interesting how behavior is strictly dependent on biological characteristics. This an aspect present in any textbook of actual ethology: if you want to know why an animal does what it does look at its anatomy and phisiology, and their interaction with the environment. I suppose the individuality coming about during the swarming could be regarded as a case of emergent property: an higher level aggregate brought about by the relations of lower level and “unaware” entities.
    I think mindswarms aren’t interested in communication with humans because they probably don’t even perceive their presence (or are unable to process it as significant, pertinent and meaningful).