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First annual report, Swarm Development Group
Marcus G. Daniels
First annual report, Swarm Development Group
21 Oct 2000 15:57:30 -0700
Gnus/5.070084 (Pterodactyl Gnus v0.84) Emacs/20.4
First annual report, Swarm Development Group
It has been a year since the Swarm Development Group was spun-out of
the Santa Fe Institute. It has been anything but boring, and I think
it is safe to say we have all learned a lot.
Since before the middle of last year, Irene Lee led the charge to
establish the Swarm Development Group as a non-profit corporation.
By the time of our formal departure from SFI, this status was secured,
the SDG directors board was formed, and we had an agreement with SFI
to transfer copyright of the software. By the end of the year, we had
office space allocated, and new computer equipment was up and running.
Without taking a breath, Irene went on to organize the first
non-SFI-supported SwarmFest. Although things looked pretty grim for
SwarmFest 2000 for a few days, Irene persevered and in the end the
meeting turned out great. Our friends from Utah State were terrific
hosts and the content and attendance was more than we had hoped.
To do all this work, Irene burned the candle at both ends. The SDG
had no money to pay her, and eventually she just had to stop for the
sake of her sanity. Irene's departure was a major loss for the
Swarm Development Group.
As a stop-gap measure, Chris Langton stepped-in as president until we
could find a replacement. In a few weeks, we (the SDG directors)
selected Randy Burge to replace Irene. Randy is an expert in
tech-transfer, working for Lockheed Martin's Technology Ventures
Corporation and Los Alamos National Labs, among others.
Just about the time Randy came on-board, a major anthropology grant
Chris was awaiting came-through, and with more money than expected.
Chris needed to direct all his attention to scientific work. (Chris,
in his irrepressible style, is taking his usual first principles
approach to the task. Construction, deconstruction, tools &
techniques, and even science itself all merge into a intermingled, yet
seemingly-effortless vibe. It is *really* annoying..eh, I mean, neat!)
Meanwhile, Alex Lancaster and Glen Ropella have continued (and
continue) to donate their time and money to the Swarm cause.
Alex left SFI this summer to begin study in the Integrative Biology
department at Berkeley. Alex remains an active SDG director and helps
to keep our web pages up-to-date.
Since April, Glen, the Vice President of the Swarm Development Group,
and my predecessor at SFI, has been working remote for a Silicon
Valley dot com. Glen shares office space with the SDG, and he
periodically sells his blood to raise money for rent, disk drives, DSL
connections, and the like.
Roger Burkhart, the primary designer of Swarm, continues to provide an
unending array of deep design plans. It was a travesty his
presentation at SwarmFest 2000 was not captured on digital media,
seeing how many SwarmFest attendees remarked how they would watch it
again and again in a trance of hypnotic fascination. In particular,
this observer remains shaken by the reality of watching over his
shoulder as he wrote the slides during presentations earlier that day.
Paul Johnson tirelessly interprets and recodes our (eh, especially
my), various mutterings for the benefit of the Swarm community at
large. Paul's contribution to Swarm and agent-based modeling can't be
As for me, the only SDG employee, through sheer necessity I've taken
on the role of executive director of the SDG (even though I'm really
just the head geek). Mail your complaints, administrativa and CD-ROM
requests to me! More e-mail! More e-mail!
At SwarmFest 2000 in March, Swarm 2.1 was released. Swarm 2.1 was the
first release developed at the new SDG office in Santa Fe. This
release addressed a number of limitations in the initial Java support
for Swarm (2.0) that the Swarm user community had identified.
We have since made one maintenance release (2.1.1), which is what we
distribute on CD-ROM. Additional incremental improvements and fixes
are available as drop-in DLL upgrades for Windows users at
Since then, I've been keeping my head down and working on new cool stuff.
The road ahead
I'll cut to the chase. Here's the new cool stuff pending for the next release.
1) Swarm models will be sharable as self-contained documents.
2) Describing the `big picture' for a model will not involve programming.
In simple cases, the `little picture' (e.g. `step' methods) will not
involve programming, either. Read on for details on this.
3) Swarm models can run inside a web browser, specifically Netscape 6.
4) Swarm models can reference subcomponents via the web.
For example, an ObserverSwarm can sit on website A and the ModelSwarm
it manages could be on website B. When run, it would all be built
and run inside the users browser.
There are all sorts of potential elaborations on this: one might
be using popular search engines to pick up compatible
subcomponents to use. Real-time collaborative work environments are
5) Swarm models can reference subcomponents developed outside of the
Swarm community. For example, there is already an genetic
algorithm optimizer module.
6) Swarm modelers can move in a low-investment way
from Swarm to different scheduling paradigms (and back!)
The killer app
These six features put in place what is needed for an interactive,
browser-based development environment for agent-based models.
The details of how such an application will look are subject to
change, of course, but imagine a vertically split-screen arrangement of tool
palette adjacent to an iconic canvas workspace.
The palette will have items like Agent, Swarm, Schedule, Action,
Grid2d, Canvas. Dragging a Schedule over a Swarm would install the
Schedule in the Swarm. Dragging an Action over a Schedule would
install the Action in the Schedule. Dragging an Agent over an Action
would make the Agent the target of the Action. Clicking on the
`message' slot in an Action would bring up a script editor.
Inappropriate combinations, would be rejected, and so on...
Note that the first release will be usable before the graphical
development environment is available. This milestone will be usable
by itself and it will be easier to learn and use than the current
Java/Objective C development kit.
At a conceptual level, the vocabulary for building Swarm models is
straightforward: agent behaviors are Actions and these Actions are
driven by Schedules. An Action is a recipient target (e.g. an agent),
combined with some transformation on that target. Agents can combine
Schedules to get multifaceted behavior patterns, and they have the
option of modifying Schedules as a simulation runs. Multiple agents
can be run together in a coordinated time and space, a Swarm. These
three features (Action, Schedule, and Swarm), make it possible to
describe agents in a modular and precise way. Further, the Swarm
simulator processes these descriptions in such a way that emergent
concurrent Actions are tracked, and thus the system is, in principle,
A way to talk in precise terms about primitive agent actions is
needed. Sometimes agent actions will be non-linear transformations of
agent state, and often actions will need to be mechanistic.
As of the last release of Swarm, models must represent Action targets and
messages as Java or Objective C objects and methods on those objects.
Although Java is popular, it still takes a fair amount of time to
learn, and is oriented towards implementation, not experimentation,
i.e. a single intent mapping to straightforward chunks of code.
Although an implementation language like C++, Java, or Objective C can
certainly satisfy this need for describing the meaning of an Action,
in a very real sense these languages are overkill and unwieldy for
the initial stages of the modeling enterprise.
In contrast, scripting languages are designed to be dynamic,
incremental, and forgiving.
addition to Objective C and Java. This support is actually in the
source tree already, and available to inquisitive users that want to
build Swarm snapshots from source code.
As with anything, there are tradeoffs. Interactive scripting
languages are slow, in general. Being dynamic and forgiving means
that more stuff has to be checked more of the time. Once a clear
hypothesis is formed (e.g. in the scripting environment), there will
typically be a need to scale the system up to see what dynamics occur for a
larger population of agents.
In this situation performance becomes a serious consideration -- even
to the point that the overhead of the Java virtual machine or the
overhead of dynamic method dispatch is prohibitive in parts of a
model. It is beneficial if Swarm models can be described in a tightly
controlled environment such as C++.
The fix is in
With the next release of Swarm, we've targeted a system specifically
intended to solve this problem: COM (http://www.microsoft.com/COM).
COM is a technology that facilitates interoperable components, regardless of
their implementation language. COM has the attribute of being very
lightweight and fast for the common case of messages within components
on the same computer.
But don't get the idea we're dependent on Microsoft. We're using
the Mozilla COM implementation, XPCOM, which is portable across Windows,
MacOS, and Unix, and has completely freely redistributable source code.
"Show me the money", you scream! Snapshots and demo code are at:
Actions, Schedules, and Swarms look and act like other Java
or Objective C types. To create agents and groups of agents (and thus
models) means creating and connecting instances of these types using
With a deliberate effort of abstraction, a modeler can take
minimalistic approach to the implementation of Swarm models in Java
and Objective C, and cut away a lot of the fat. Empirically, a review
of Swarm models shows a lot of variance in programming idioms for
tasks that are in fact identical.
To avoid describing a model's architecture using raw code, the first
task is to figure out what all Swarm models have in common, and then
to specify a semantics that encompasses the important features of that
There are two parts to this: the first was stated above: a Swarm model
is one that uses Swarm scheduling semantics, i.e. Swarm, Schedule, Action.
The other part is the fact that modelers use Swarm to do things besides
describing complex, aggregate behavior patterns. For example, Swarm
provides objects, the means to load and save objects, data structures
such as lists and maps, probes to inspect these data structures, grids
and rasters to display them, etc. All of this and more is needed by
modelers to create and evaluate their models.
How can we factor out all the constant architectural aspects of a
Swarm model but preserve the goal of a having a quick, expressive
IMA, the Integrating Modeling Architecture
At SwarmFest 1999, Ferdinando Villa (http://ieee.umces.edu/~villa), a
scientist at the Institute for Ecological Economics at the University
of Maryland presented a paper which proposed a modular description
architecture for modeling called IMA, the Integrating Modeling
Paraphrased, Ferdinando made the observation that modeling requires:
1) one or more paradigms for generating hypotheses
2) specific semantics for describing scenarios subject to
predictions of these hypotheses
3) techniques to ground the semantics with validation on real data
4) modular tools to make all this feasible, with the realization that
some of these tools really need to be designed by domain experts
With regard to the first requirement, Swarm scheduling (as a special
case of agent-based modeling as a special case of discrete-event
simulation) is one possible paradigm for hypothesis generation and testing.
With regard to the second requirement, in a sense we have these
`specific semantics' (Swarm, Schedule, Action). In practice, as
mentioned earlier, there is a need for stronger conventions for gluing
the components together.
Where things really get untenable for Swarm is with #3 and #4. So
far, we've addressed this with relatively low-level integration
features like multi-language support, HDF5 object persistence,
community programming support, and our minimalistic class libraries
for space representation and some basic built-in analysis tools.
SDG members tell me time and time again how much they want better
spatial representation capabilities, better analysis & visualization
tools, and better data representation techniques for agents.¹
IMA addresses all these problems. In IMA, model component semantics
(in our case, one example is agents) are described in Modules.
Primitive Modules are things such as datasets, probes, or scripts each
having a specific typing and parameterization. The physical
representation scheme for all IMA components is a tree of linked
nodes. In fact, it is the Document Object Model
(http://www.w3.org/DOM), a well-known standard for active management
of hierarchical web content.
IMA is described in detail at: http://ima.umces.edu/imt.
A SourceForge page is at: http://sourceforge.net/projects/imt
So, compared to Swarm model implementation as it is done today, the
first change with IMA is that `the big picture', is painted using a
tree of Module nodes. Most of these Modules will have a specific
fixed grammar. For example, a user would not be allowed to create a
Schedule outside of a Swarm, as they can in, say, Java.
When a Swarm modeler says "I have an ObserverSwarm, which contains a
ModelSwarm which contains three Agents using ScheduleA that
runs ActionA and ActionB", in IMA it means exactly one set of forms,
and only the details of the ActionA and ActionB Modules would (or
could) include any code at all.
This notion of a grammar of module types has the handy attribute that
it is a well-behaved structure which can be manipulated using a
graphical model development application, as described earlier.
A corollary is that there will not be obscure toolchain complexity or
a compiler involved in model development, except in cases where such
`native' components are desired for performance.
IMA addresses issues #3 and #4 by being designed for uncoordinated
extensibility. It is easy for third parties to add new Module types
to their modeling environment. In contrast, it is not easy for
someone to add a feature to the Swarm libraries, since there are so
many internal conventions to the Swarm code.
A Swarm IMT module
IMT is the engine of the IMA architecture.
A Swarm IMT module is well underway. Swarm now supports COM which
makes it possible to load the Swarm simulator dynamically from the IMT
C++ engine, and for Swarm to call the IMT engine via COM.
The SDG is enhancing the clean IMT prototype to use Mozilla's DOM
interfaces. This will allow IMT to load model descriptions off the
web, and run them inside Netscape 6. Concurrently, Dr. Villa
continues with foundational work on IMA semantics.
With a Netscape 6 plug-in for IMT working, the SDG will then implement
a basic `Swarm' Module grammar for IMT. This will have a simple
design similiar to the XML prototypes described in previous papers
(http://www.santafe.edu/~mgd/anl/hydralink.html#AEN127), except that Actions
will reference IMT Script Modules, not raw precompiled Java code.
The Netscape 6 plug-ins for IMT (the basic IMA grammar processor and
object manager), the Swarm IMT plug-in (the Swarm add-in grammar
module for IMT), and the Swarm plug-in (the existing Swarm engine)
will constitute the first milestone, described above.
It's no oversight: flat-out native code, all the way down.
The second milestone will layer on top of the IMT system a graphical
editor and development environment for IMT/Swarm models. Again, this
can be tackled in a modular way where the SDG contributes inspectors,
editors, etc. specific to Swarm as a plug-in, and gets the rest for free.
(And other collaborators on the the IMA effort can do the same, of course!)
Mozilla has good infrastructure in place for this work, and by the
time we get to this point we (the IEE and SDG) should have a clear
picture of Mozilla's future.²
The first milestone should be ready around the first of the year, and
then they'll need be a period of incremental improvement and a
stability release. (The first release of Netscape 6 is expected soon,
Mozilla 1.0 is expected second quarter of next year.)
This dream's in sight
Better ways are needed to manage and measure the complexity of agent
models. The SDG has started on a course that emphasizes collaboration
and integration, both with regard to semantics and infrastructure.
Concretely, we are directing resources to assist projects that take
the lead to solve the basic representational problems facing everyone
in this domain, and especially those projects that have
freely-redistributable infrastructure to show for it.
In the near term, in collaboration with the IMA project, the SDG
aims to create a web-based model description and execution facility.
This task is in fact nearing completion.
The technique of agent-based modeling has substantial traction, and
Swarm has proven itself in this domain. We expect the distributed,
multi-level Swarm scheduling interfaces will be a useful contribution to
the IMA framework. The design of IMA is such that we can extend the system
as necessary as SDG member needs dictate.
Pragmatically, there is a clear need for a migration path from the
Swarm development kit that is in use today to the next-generation
IMA system, and there are clearly a number of SDG members with deep
investments in Objective C and Java models. For this reason we've
taken steps to make the Swarm engine usable in larger modeling
frameworks by introducing bridge technologies to COM and Java.
In this way, we can afford to investigate new approaches while
maintaining the existing engine for SDG members with existing investments.
Building on IMA's flexible infrastructure and semantics, we will then
begin work on an accessible but flexible model development application
for modelers. This work will start immediately after the next
stabilized Swarm release. And of course the more groups that join the
Swarm Development Group, the faster this work will move forward!
Swarm Development Group
¹ Why not continue development with the current Swarm analysis, gui,
simtoolsgui, and space libraries? The underlying GUI interfaces that
Swarm has are undesirable for general usage. This is because they
were put in place primarily to support the probe panels, analysis and
space capabilities that do exist in Swarm. Basing further work in the
space and analysis libraries on this code is a poor investment since
this GUI library lacks any real design, and because it is based on
Objective C. Such work would be polluted by a problematic foundation
and, worse, there is no substantial developer community around
Objective C. This latter problem also makes further development on
the collections library a questionable enterprise. All in all Swarm
needs to rebuild itself around a modern foundation. This means
leveraging best-of-the-breed components and avoiding from-scratch
implementation whenever possible.
² A note on Mozilla: some people believe Mozilla will fail. Some
people believe that Mozilla is hopelessly bloated, bug-ridden and that
Netscape will die. Putting aside for the moment that these people are
mistaken, defeatist, and and deeply misguided, ;-), I should point out
that all the technologies mentioned above are all well-documented
standards. Microsoft COM is deployed on millions of Windows machines,
and DOM (level 1) is a standard Internet Explorer will support sooner
or later. So there are alternatives: one is to use scriptable COM
components with Internet Explorer. Indeed, these are not zero-energy
alternatives, but they are low-energy alternatives.
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