Complex systems without a leader

Can you imagine a society without a leader at the top?

Try imagine a classroom without a teacher. A restaurant kitchen without a head chef. I’m not even talking about a leader in the sense of hierarchy – I’m talking about a central, authoritative point of reference. So imagine roads without traffic lights. Board games without rule books.

I can’t imagine any of these scenarios without imagining lack of coordination, chaos, and inevitable accidents or disasters. We know that authoritative figures or leaders are essential in managing complex situations and systems. Even a system like communism that has the intention of giving equal power to each citizen ultimately needs a leader at the top.

Today, we will be linking three disparate, complex systems that don’t require a leader: blockchain, neurons, and the Overwatch league (a popular e-sports tournament). If you know little about any of them, fear not, I will try my best to hold your hand through them. But in linking these three together, we can get a picture of what a complex system, even a society, might be able to function – without a leader.

Complex system #1: Blockchain

No, blockchain isn’t Bitcoin, or cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin are made with blockchain, but blockchain itself is merely a technology. They’re like banks – banks aren’t dollars and cents, but banks allow for the system of dollars and cents to work. Similarly, blockchain is just the backbone structure that helps cryptocurrency work.

Here’s the selling pitch for blockchain: what if we didn’t have to trust all our money to centralised banks, who may and have made stupid decisions resulting in devastating financial crises and the everyday man losing all of their savings?

Let’s remind ourselves about why we need banks – specifically in the context of the government banks. They regulate the value of money. Money is nothing but paper if we don’t as a society agree on what that paper is worth, and the government ensures that this remains stable. So they mediate between buyers and sellers, or borrowers and lenders, creating relatively stable interest rates and keeping track of who owes who what. If not, someone who wanted to borrow money might go to a borrower (like unlicensed moneylenders or loansharks) and potentially face excruciatingly high interest rates. Or a well-meaning person lending money may find that their borrowers never pay them back, causing them to lose money in the process. Banks are simply the middlemen.

Blockchain comes in and gets rid of the silly notion that we need these middlemen. They say: instead of one big guy knowing and managing all money transactions, let’s give everyone this knowledge, and the ability to keep each other accountable. They call this decentralisation – getting rid of the need for a ‘centre’ middleman.

So let’s say Ann wants to pay Chris $5. Instead of sending it over using a bank transaction, in which the bank is the middleman receiving the $5 from Ann and paying out $5 to Chris, Ann now announces to absolutely everyone: I AM PAYING CHRIS $5!! And everyone writes it down religiously: Ann is paying $5 to Chris.

The next time Chris actually wants to use that $5, all he has to do now is say: EVERYONE! Remember that $5 Ann paid me? I’m USING THE $5 NOW TO PAY CHARLES!! And everyone writes that down: Chris is paying his $5 to Charles.

This may sound like an extremely tedious process, where every individual has to keep track of all these transactions. But computers are great at doing this, and only need internet access to broadcast and receive these messages from Ann or Chris, or anyone in the network. One computer sends out the message that their owner is making such and such transaction, and all other computers log it down individually.

And here’s the accountability part. If Chris tries to sneakily adjust one of their computer’s internal logs to say that he received $99999 from Ann, the computer sends this fake ‘transaction’ out to all the other computers – but all of them will be like “no this didn’t happen? Ann didn’t tell us this”. And the transaction will be voided. No police needed!

Complex system #2: Neurons

Our brains are some of the most complex systems that exist in the world, and they’re so complex that we instinctively like to describe the ‘little guy in our head’ controlling everything when in fact it is all just brain. We have about 86 billion neurons in our brain – 86 billion little things that blink and fire and give us the abilities that we have. They are heavily interconnected over long and short distances. And there is no clear leader.

There are some hypotheses for general regions that lead the brain. The prefrontal cortex seems to control attention, like choosing to dedicate resources to solving one task instead of another. The default mode network, a network of neurons stretched over different regions of the brain, seems particularly active during introspection and restful thinking, which could indicate some executive role. But these are still big regions, encompassing billions of neurons in themselves. How do those neurons coordinate?

Possible answer: synchronous firing.

Neuron A and B are connected to Neuron C, who receives firing signals from either of them. On a normal day Neuron A and B are firing randomly, because they’re not directly connected to each other. But one day, something causes Neuron A and B to fire at the same time, in a rhythmic, oscillating fashion. Neuron C receives repeated simultaneous signals from Neuron A and B! This coordination between neurons could very well be to convey some new or special information about the inputs, or simply coordinate and organise themselves.

This phenomenon was first properly articulated in a paper by von der Malsburg et al. (1981), who were studying how neurons encoded for the visual perception of different faces. Such synchronous activity has been shown to occur more in response to stimuli that the person is specifically focusing on or attending to. In other words, when a group of neurons suddenly start firing in rhythm, it probably means that they’re working on the same task, or processing the same information.

How exactly do neurons ‘know’ to fire in sync with other neurons that they’re not connected to? They probably don’t. But when neurons fire synchronously, often it’s because because both neurons received input at the same time, so they fire at the same time. For example, let’s say that Neuron A is a neuron in the visual region of the brain, and Neuron B is in the auditory region. Both neurons process entirely different kinds of stimuli, but the fact that they (despite being so far away from each other) fire at the same time indicates that the input in the real world may have been linked. We can process that a character we see in a movie is producing the words we hear, because the lip movements and the audio we hear are happening at the same time, which causes our neurons to fire synchronously. Then, Neuron C on the higher level notices this synchrony, and knows that Neurons A and B have something in common that they’re processing, which helps Neuron C combine information from both of those neurons.

To summarise, when different neurons receive input at the same time, they naturally then fire off at the same time. So when you zoom out, they’re all firing synchronously. Neurons in higher-level regions see this synchrony, and conclude that the lower rhythmically-firing neurons are processing input that is linked in some way. This then helps those higher-level neurons to integrate all the different inputs from neurons across the brain to work on a particular task, like understanding the plot of a movie as you’re watching it.

Complex system #3: The Overwatch League

Overwatch is a first-person shooter video game, where you’re in a team with 5 other players, playing against another team of 6. It’s hard to sum up the game, but essentially you and your teammates have to work together to complete a certain objective, like escort a payload across a map, while the other team fights to make sure you don’t complete it.

The gameplay is fairly complicated, as each team member is a different character with different abilities, that may counter or be susceptible to the opponents in different ways. But the most complicated aspect is in teamwork, because teamwork is essential – one teammate not pulling their weight can easily result in a lost game, and it’s not easy for another teammate to be able to ‘carry’ the team to victory.

While the average gamer plays mostly with random strangers as teammates in each match, the official Overwatch e-sports competition called the Overwatch League has fixed teams and team members. Professional gamers practice together in individual teams, refining their team strategy and developing their unique team style, under the guidance of coaches and with a fixed salary. All in all, such teams have an edge simply by being able to improve their collective teamwork.

In the early days of the league, a lot of viewers were curious as to what kind of team communications such professional teams would be having during the game, given that they had gone through a level of team-training that normal players would never have. Many expected to hear strategic shot-calling (where a leader would direct the others), analysis of their opponent’s gameplay, or generally ‘higher-level’ discussion.

Most people were surprised when the first videos of team comms were released:

Skip to 1:40 for a prime example

This is brilliantly summed up by this Youtube comment:

There are certainly players who may have a leader-like role in the team in clearly directing the team with instructions (or at least, full sentences) during momentary lulls in the match, but in the heat of the team fight there is often no time for that. The only information required is to know which of the opponents to target down first, and getting a ‘kill’ relies very much on a combined team effort. Shouting the target’s name signals to others to focus on that same target, who then affirm the call by repeating the target’s name. In all, this allows them to work as a single unit with a clear goal.

Additionally, this gives every team member the power to establish a new goal based on the information they have or their judgment of the situation – all they have to do is start shouting. All players can report the information they have, allowing the team to function greater than the sum of its parts, as it should.

One thing to note, however, is that these are just 6 team members in an Overwatch match. The brain has billions of individual neurons, and as of December 2019 there were 42 million bitcoin wallets. 6 humans would not be able to use this system of shouting to do what the brain does, like predict future outcomes or compose essays. The true power of a decentralised complex system is in its scale. Blockchain technology can create a whole new currency system, but the currency only increases in value the more people subscribe to and participate in that system.

What we can learn

Throughout these three systems, the action they have in common is something like echoing. Each individual unit mirrors and echoes what they see from the instigating unit. Does that mean that if we wanted to have a no-leader group discussion someone would literally start with “I think x” and everyone else literally has to repeat “I think x” over and over? Definitely not literally. Yet, underlying this practice might be a focus on the act of listening, and being on the same page as everyone. One person can influence the crowd, but only as much as anyone else. And if one or a few people believe that this influence is erroneous, they can speak up.

There are problems underlying this ideal that every person could have equal say in working towards a goal. Groupthink is a major one – shifting focus to one topic may inevitably bias the whole group to ignoring other important issues. The individual differences between humans means that some may simply be more hesitant to speak up, not wanting to divert the group’s attention to other things. Or some may want to hog the limelight a bit more. Cryptocurrencies are so volatile because there’s no central regulator either, and banks still win in terms of stability. All I think this means, however, is that the rules and structure of this decentralised human system needs to be really well thought out. It may be very hard, but I think it’s possible to create a system that effectively evens out the playing field.

These examples don’t prove that leaders are entirely unnecessary either. Someone had to develop the blockchain protocol. Someone had to tell Overwatch players the game plan for attack. There are going to be situations where it’s simply best or necessary to have a centralised authority, and I won’t go into that here. But in all cases for the decentralised systems I’ve discussed, the system as it worked on a task-solving, everyday basis depended equally on everyone, and the task was simple, whether it meant firing a neural signal or shouting a target’s name.

Ultimately, this has been a thought experiment – what if we didn’t need to have leaders for everything? Leaders can negatively influence and even be harmful to the system they control. Leaders might seek to maintain their power through underhanded means. Leaders are not omnipotent and will miss out on issues or solutions that people on the ground are aware of. There are going to be plenty of scenarios in human society where it will be desirable to not have a leader if we can help it. Today, I’ve pointed out systems that we can take inspiration from.

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