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Phenotropic and stigmergic webs: The new reach of networks


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This article proposes a conceptual extension of sensor–actuator networks, taking in all “things” that can be sensed by sensors, or acted upon by actuators, in various physical modalities. These things become nodes of a web, graph, or virtual network overlaid on the existing sensor–actuator networks that make up the “Internet of Things”. The paper explains how the broader concepts of phenotropics and stigmergy may account for the special kind of connections that these networks entail. Phenotropics refer to a model of communication between nodes by way of pattern recognition. Stigmergy refers to a model of self-organization that uses communication between entities by modifications of a shared physical environment. Phenotropic–stimergic webs “loop back” sensor–actuator networks by way of the physical world. Graph-based complexity models provide a means of analyzing the hybrid systems made up by these networks and the additional nodes attached to them in this way. The evolution toward such paradigms in the realm of network-to-environment interfaces draws upon a similar, long-standing evolution in the realm of human-to-information interfaces. The paper explores the consequences of these new networking paradigms on the architecture, management, and organization of networks. It also shows how these ideas can expand and enrich present-day applications of pervasive networking, by taking full advantage of the physical nature of the new end points of digital networks, and how they bear upon human interfaces to networked services, possibly opening up new territories for universal access. KeywordsInternet of things–Stigmergy–Phenotropics–Web of services
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Phenotropic & stigmergic webs: the new reach of networks
Orange Labs R&D, Technologies
28 Chemin du vieux Chêne, F-38240 Meylan, France
Keywords: Internet of Things, stigmergy, phenotropics, web of services
This article proposes a conceptual extension of sensor-actuator networks, taking in all "things" that can be
sensed by sensors, or acted upon by actuators, in various physical modalities. These things become nodes of
a web, graph or virtual network overlaid on the existing sensor-actuator networks that make up the "Internet
of Things". We explain how the broader concepts of phenotropics and stigmergy may account for the special
kind of connections that these networks entail. Phenotropics refers to a model of communication between
these nodes by way of pattern recognition. Stigmergy refers to a model of self-organization that uses
communication between entities by modifications of a shared physical environment. Phenotropic-stimergic
webs "loop back" sensor-actuator networks by way of the physical world. Graph-based complexity models
provide a means of analysing the hybrid systems made up by these networks and the additional nodes
attached to them in this way.
We explain how an evolution towards such paradigms in the realm of network-to-environment interfaces
draws upon a similar, long-standing evolution in the realm of human to information interfaces. We explore
the consequences of these new networking paradigms on the architecture, management and organization of
networks. We show how these ideas can expand and enrich present-day applications of pervasive
networking, by taking full advantage of the physical nature of the new end-points of digital networks, and
how they bear upon human interfaces to networked services, possibly opening up new territories for
universal access.
1. Introduction
1.1. Beyond the "internet of things"
Most mainstream visions of the "Internet of Things"[1] come down to an extension of the range of
devices that may become attached to networks, usually by means of radio-based technologies such
as RFID or Zigbee
The underlying rationale is straightforward: there are trillions of "things" waiting to get connected,
when billions of humans already are. If some new-found variant of Metcalfe's law would apply,
the promise of these "things to things" connections would appear boundless.
Under such earlier catchphrases as "smart devices", "communicating/cooperating objects",
"pervasive networking" or M2M
, it is no surprise that the telecom sector had been embracing this
Zigbee is a short-range, low- bit-rate and low-power radio protocol used for connection of sensors or other low-end devices.
M2M (Machine to Machine) is, in the telecom industry, the favored designation for the new domain of services where mobile terminals
are used in conjunction with sensors for remote monitoring or remote control. Viewed originally as a mere extension of the subscription
base for cellular services (using embedded SIM cards), M2M services are now understood as potentially using all kinds of special-
purpose wireline or wireless access networks, extending their range to low-end devices for which direct connection to regular cellular
networks would not, technically or economically, make sense.
evolution as a legitimate extension of its territory, well before the "Internet of Things" (IoT) gained
currency as the new buzzword of choice. When incorporated into the lingo of a perennially
parochial telecom industry, these early attempts at redefining communication beyond person-to-
person have created some confusion, as the distinction between the different categories of new
things objects or devices that became attached to networks was not always clearly understood,
especially when mobile phones and their avatars were added to the mix. Regular IT interface
devices and telecom terminals, for which sensors and actuators are used exclusively to support
classical human interfaces should normally be excluded from the internet of things proper. IoT
devices should be characterized in that they are endowed with function-specific capabilities to interact
with the physical environment through embedded sensors and/or actuators. Understood in this way, IoT
devices are whatever appliances, machinery, fittings, apparatuses, contrivances which have their
own physical function in the physical environment, in whatever form factor or outer appearance
they may come. They are, in a proper sense, "embedded" in this environment, with information
processing and transmission capabilities added on top of it.
Another defining thread of the Internet of Things originated from RFID and other tagging
technologies as used in such canonical applications as supply chain management. Originally
distinct from the telecom & M2M vision, this view centred more on the low-end of the spectrum of
connected things, towards entirely passive items such as supermarket goods or pieces of
Compelling and extensive as it may seem, this "things-to-things" vision misses the crux of the
broader IoT evolution, which, whatever its name, is not a purely quantitative enlargement.
Encompassing the whole spectrum of connected things, from passive items to sensors, actuators
and other embedded appliances, it is a quantum leap, portending the liberation of networks from
their informational confines. By connecting "things" that are deeply embedded in the physical
environment, ICT systems become strongly coupled with all kinds of physical systems, opening up
entire new domains that had remained outside the purview of ICT, or for which information
systems were entirely disconnected from the corresponding physical plant/system/process,
requiring manual data entry to relate the two.
In this view, the outermost border of the digital network is still the sensor or actuator itself,
beyond which is the hazy analog world. The revolution of pervasive networking that lead to the
multiplication of these connected sensors and actuators [9,11] afforded an order-of-magnitude
enlargement in the interaction bandwidth between the analog environment and the digital word.
Yet, for all their transformative role, this current generation of sensors and actuators do not
correspond to the ultimate possible displacement of the network border. How this border may
shift further is precisely the next stage of the evolution that we intend to describe.
Drawing an analogy from the domain of human interfaces, we first provide a view on the possible
extensions of networks to things that can be sensed by sensors, and actuated by actuators, and
explain how these extensions can be described in a graph-based formalism.
Taking a different viewpoint, we then relate these two ideas, with all due reservations, to the
original concepts of “phenotropics” and stigmergy
, as introduced respectively by Jaron Lanier
and Pierre-Paul Grassé.
The distinction is not entirely clear-cut because many IT devices now include new physical interfaces (such as location sensors or NFC
tags/readers), that, even if they are not used directly for human interaction, provide contextual information that may be used directly or
indirectly for human interaction.
The latter word has already been widely adopted in the scientific literature on collective intelligence, even though it first appeared in a
french-language journal on social insects, whereas the Lanier phenotropics article has had very little following so far.
We then provide concrete examples to show how these ideas can be applied, and conclude by
drawing a link to robotics.
1.2. Drawing upon human interfaces
Even the most radical advocates of universal RFID or IPv6 would shy away from enrolling human
beings into their systems with a lifelong ID or IP address. Humans do belong, just as physical
things, in the analog word outside of digital networks. Yet they are, for good reason, treated in a
radically different way. Contrasting the evolution of the border between digital networks and
things” on the one hand, between digital networks and humans on the other hand, provides
interesting insights, to be applied from the latter to the former, and not the other way round!
Most grand schemes devised for the Internet of Things (such as the EPCglobal Network
, the
, or, in a very different vein, the "Internet 0"[3]) boil down to attaching a universally
unique, network-ready digital identity to analog things, be it their General ID, ucode or IP address.
This amounts to digitizing these "analog things", or, more broadly to making the physical world
more digital by letting the digital world encroach upon the world of analog things.
In the realm of human interfaces, exactly the opposite trend has been at work, which could be
summarized as "making the digital world appear more like the analog/human/physical world". All
varieties of human interfaces have been moving in the very same direction: they try not to force
human users to meet the digital environment on its own digital terms, or, equivalently, to make
the interface for human users look less like the interface between programs or networked entities.
The entire agenda of so-called "perceptual interfaces" [10] bears witness to this. The difference
between digital data input through a keyboard or command entry through a menu selection and
through a voice recognition software should make this clear. A less obvious and more interesting
example is the replacement of clicking on a menu item by the grasping of a tangible interface that
represents (physically impersonates) the same digital entity. Obviously, the interface is moving
much further into the analog world in the latter case, and it requires more sophisticated sensing
and perception capabilities on the part of the system.
These concurrent evolutions have each been advocated for valid and widely accepted reasons in
their own right.
As for human interfaces, convenience and ease of use are not the only reasons for the un-
digitization trend: robustness, graceful degradation and reliability are complementary and equally
valid reasons. This is not obvious when, e.g., keyboard input is replaced by imperfect speech
recognition. It would become clearer if we could replace a password input by a 100% foolproof
and transparent biometric identification software.
In the slow-moving world of software architecture, it certainly is provocative, even preposterous,
to propose, as a few visionary authors have done [1][2] [4], that communication between different
modules of a large software system should try to move towards this analog interface model. The
rationale for this "de-protocolization" of network & software interfaces is not that they have to be
accessible to a human user (though this could be also an argument in this case) but that they
should overcome the brittleness inherent in syntax-bound protocols and programmatic interfaces,
in order to become, if possible, more robust, gracefully degradable and scalable.
The main thesis of this paper is that similar arguments of scalability, expandability and robustness
can apply for networks of things and, more generally, for networks that are closely coupled to
things through sensors and actuators. Communication between these things need not be more
digital, it may retain the specific properties of the physical world in which these things belong.
Beyond this, the physical world provides both the inspiration and the model for these new
paradigms that may percolate back in the digital world.
2.The new web of sense-able/actionable things
Starting from a definition of an internet of embedded devices (i.e. sensor-actuator-equipped
devices) as outlined before, we may try to examine how we can actually try to do for this internet
of things what has been done for human interfaces. This amounts to try to make the outer
interfaces of this network more analog and "thing-friendly", instead of enforcing digitization on
these things.
2.1. Integrating the network borderland of "sense-able" things
In this perspective, the range of things that may become indirectly part of networks can actually be
extended much further than sensor devices themselves, as pictured in figure 1. If we use a sensor
(e.g. a camera) and a "thing" recognition software analysing the data acquired by this camera, we
can consider that every single "thing", every passive item within the field of view of this camera
that can be "recognized" by this software becomes ipso facto a "networked thing", without
requiring an RFID tag or even an optical code (such as a 1D or 2D barcode) for this. This is
represented by a new kind of network link on figure 1, directed from the passive item in question
to the sensor. Much rests on the sense given to "thing recognition" here, and we will elaborate on
this in the phenotropics section of this article. For the time being, let's say that this idea goes much
beyond the sensing of individual items by individual sensors. If we have a federation of
distributed networked sensors available (such as represented in figure 1, as a miniature of a "smart
environment"), networked "things" will comprise all "stuff" that can be sensed by data fusion &
pattern recognition software operating on top of these federated sensors working together,
potentially overcoming their individual limitations as single-modality devices.
This is not an evolutionary, incremental and quantitative extension of networks, such as can be
obtained by integrating a new radio-based protocol. It is really a qualitative leap in that it makes it
possible to integrate all analog "stuff" as it is, discrete or bulk amorphous analog things without
any digital identity or without any network interface whatsoever, and without adhering to any
kind of standard, at any level, for this network connection.
Not only is there no prior barrier to the integration of new things, this integration is also 100%
universal as it requires no prior standardization of any kind of code or interface.
Phenotropic web : encompasses all « senseable » physical items
Sensor network
Host network
Figure 1 : Enlarged perimeter of networks encompassing all sense-able things
2.2. Integrating the network borderland of "actionable things"
Actuators enact physical modifications of the physical environment and these modifications are
sensed by sensors, either directly indirectly, through passive things that are modified by the
actuators. These new physical links (actuator environment sensor) or (actuator thing(s)
sensor) make up a graph, or virtual network that we may call a stigmergic network, overlaid upon
the wireline/wireless data network to which these sensors and actuators are attached to receive or
transmit their respective numeric data (figure 2).
In this view, sense-able things that belong to the outer borderland of the digital network described
before have a complementary way of becoming integrated into the digital networks, as potentially
being acted upon by actuators. The condition for these actionable things to become integrated in
the network proper is that effects of their actuation can in turn be picked up by sensors.
What we integrate in the network here is not new nodes, but new links that close loops of sensor-
actuator networks in a way that does not use the modalities of classical networks and
complements them.
We may distinguish between three cases of stigmergic links:
Generic actuators acting on generic passive things that are independent from the actuators
These actionable things may be purely passive, and in this case, they may be actuated by external
actuators that are independent from the thing itself and may act upon a variety of external things,
or loci (e.g. surfaces or volumes) in their environment. Such would be the case for e.g. a robotic
arm fetching or moving something, or a projector projecting an image on something, or a foot
leaving a footprint on the ground, a pen leaving a mark on a sheet of paper, etc. In this case we
consider that the stigmergic network establishes a link between the actuator and the thing or locus
being acted upon, which may be considered as a separate node of the stigmergic network.
A very important case corresponds to what has been called [12] "sematectonic" stigmergy, or
collaborative physical "work", where such a thing or locus can be acted upon jointly by several
actuators, with physical constraints mediating these coupled effects, corresponding to a node with
several incoming links in the stigmergic graph, where the only means of coordinating the
collaboration is the thing being acted upon itself. The prototypical example is a track being blazed
on soft ground, or a hole being dug, where implicit spontaneous coordination of this kind will lead
several agents to plow the same track or dig the same hole, mutually benefiting each other and
reinforcing their own work. This is also the case for the kind of coordinated work among social
insects (such as termites) that was the focus of Grassé's original definition of stigmergy [4].
Actuators tightly coupled with thing they act upon
It may not be relevant to separate an actuator from the physical thing or locus it acts upon when
this relationship is fixed. In this case we may consider that the state of the thing being actuated is
the output state of the actuator. Such is the case for e.g. a motor used to open or close a valve, a
window blind or a door. The state or this actuated device may in turn influence other things in the
environment, such as the state of the room being changed by having doors open, and in this case
the link between the two falls into the previous category.
Actuators that are part of a system composed of several actuators and sensors
They may be complex appliances or devices that integrate both sensors and actuators, ranging in
complexity from simple control systems or domestic appliance to mechatronic systems such as a
robots. In this case, tightly coupled actuator-sensor loops are already part of the design of the
device, yet what is interesting is that other sensors available in the environment may come into
play to augment the sensing capabilities of the device itself, complementing the internal actuator-
sensor loops of the device with external, more loosely coupled ones. For example, a robot is
normally able to sense the position of its own joints by using its internal sensors, but other sensors
in the environment will also pick up the position of the robot.
It could be considered that humans, be they active users of the target system or passive passers-by,
belong to this latter category…As passive entities they are acted upon and sensed, yet they also
comprise actuators that can modify the environment, the effect of which is in turn sensed by
In fact, the distinction between these three cases is only relevant to the degree to which we analyse
the system, i.e. whether we dissect subsystems into their constituent parts as actuators and
things/system parts being acted upon, or consider them as black boxes. If we could drive down the
modeling to the finest granularity, we could model all these cases similarly, with a sitgmergic link
between actuators and "things" or "system parts". The only difference would be that in some cases
these links would represent tight & fixed coupling and in some others a transient one.
Phenotropic-stigmergic web : encompasses all « senseable » physical items
Sensor network
Host network
Figure 2 : "Stigmergic" network links between actionable things and the corresponding actuators and sensors
2.3. Internet of Things or Web of Things?
If we called "internet of devices" the network of sensors and actuators (devices that are attached to
networks in a traditional sense), could we call the extended phenotropic network as construed
above the "internet of things" proper? It should be clear that "internet" is a double misnomer to
convey such a vision.
Much as the early World-Wide-Web that we know of was a virtual network of hyperlinked static
HTML documents overlaid on top of the internet, the network of sensed things is itself a virtual
network overlaid upon an internet of devices and sensors, which is itself an order of magnitude
extension of the early internet. As a virtual network (a graph in mathematical terms), the web of
things does actually comprise a far larger number of nodes than an IP network ever will and does
also correspond to a different topology, as links between things correspond to their mutual "sense-
ability" or "actionability". Another key difference is that, whereas the graph representing an IP
network is non-directed, the graphs representing either the classical document-centric web, or the
web of things, are directed.
Trying to leapfrog the marketing hype that has surrounded the so-called web 2.0, no less an
authority than Vinton Cerf has proposed that the "web 3.0" should correspond to the "internet of
things". “Web of things" is an alternative name that could fit the bill, hadn't this phrase already
been put forward [5] to describe a different idea
2.4. Alternative Graph models
As we have said earlier, these new kinds of network links are not limited to bilateral connections
between sensors and things: potentially several sensors will jointly contribute their data to identify
each of these items. A weighted graph could make it possible to represent the "contribution" of a
Namely the application of lightweight RESTful protocols based on the original web for the internet of things, in lieu of the more
cumbersome web services (WS-*) suite
sensor to the identification/attachment of a particular device when these devices are really on the
same footing. The estimation of these weights would in practice be difficult and their evaluation
arbitrary, and this may not be the best way to make their role clear. Another way to address this is
to draw a distinction between
a primary sensor device, i.e. one to which an item is virtually attached, much like an RFID
tag to is temporarily attached to a reader antenna, because it provides the main
identification data for this item (typically a feature that is used to characterize this item)
ancillary sensors that do merely provide context that makes it possible to disambiguate the
item characterized, but not uniquely identified by this primary feature.
3. The phenotropic web
3.1. Phenotropics : beyond protocols and sequential communication
There is a fundamental difference between classical protocol-based network links and the sensor-
things links that make up the "web of sense-able things" as proposed before: these links do not rely
on the previous standardization of sequential, syntactically-defined protocols, where the sending
and receiving ends of a network link have to fit together like a key in a keyhole.
Jaron Lanier [6][7] has coined a new word : "phenotropics
", to conceptualize the special nature of
these links, where the matching between both ends of the link is analog, based on global parallel
pattern recognition rather than discrete and serial pattern matching as used in classical protocol-
based interfaces. Pattern recognition is supposed to play the role of "interface glue" for a
phenotropic networks, and to replace discrete syntactic pattern matching used in regular
protocols. Phenotropic interfaces are, in Lanier's view, to be preferred because they are adaptable,
extensible and bendable, whereas argument-based or protocol-based interfaces are inflexible and
brittle, leading to all the problems encountered when scaling up software systems.
Applying this concept to a broader view of networks, new frontiers open up, that question our
deep-seated implicit= assumptions about what a network is. This new perspective does also,
potentially, give us a lead to an alternative route of evolution for the future of networks and
complex software systems.
3.1.1. Phenotropics à la Jaron Lanier : surfaces vs. wires, patterns vs. linear syntaxes :
Jaron Lanier had strongly emphasized, in his original contributions on phenotropics [6] [7], what
he believed was a fundamental difference with an implicit and ingrained sequential wire-based
model that had molded all traditional communication models: the serial transmission of
information along a wire that was originally a physical constraint had, beyond the actual existence
of these very wires, gained the status of a universal metaphor that permeated all models of
interfaces within a system. He contrasted this with his proposed phenotropic model where
communication would be based on the parallel interaction of surfaces rather than the serial
attachment of wires. We explain in the following how this parallel vs. serial distinction does
actually miss the point.
A further and more significant difference is in the models and representations on which the data
being transferred through these interfaces are based, and the way in which correspondence is
The dual classical greek stem of this work means literally : "appearance", (like in "pheno-type") and "turn" or "direction" like in "iso-
established between these representations on both sides of the interface. Traditional interfaces
usually rely on several layers of symbolic representations and languages defined through a formal
syntax, and these languages are matched through discrete and exact symbol-by-symbol pattern
matching. Phenotropic interfaces do, by contrast, rely on analog iconic representations
(aggrandizingly called "post-symbolic" communication by Lanier) and approximate global
matching of patterns.
3.1.2. Phenotropics and the 2D/1D distinction
The surface vs. wire (parallel vs. serial) distinction highlighted by Lanier is not really the most
relevant to differentiate phenotropic and classical interfaces. Though any serial interface cannot be
parallelized, any parallel interface can obiously be serialized : in this sense serial interfaces are
more general than parallel ones, which negates Lanier’s assumption that there would be
something special about surface-based parallel interfaces.
Besides, there are examples of interfaces like matrix codes (a.k.a. 2D “barcodes
) that have a 2D
and are thus intrinsically “surface-based”, yet do rely on a predefined symbology, are
recognized by discrete pattern matching, not global pattern recognition, and are thus a special case
of discrete syntactic interfaces, not phenotropic interfaces. Conversely, intrinsically serial interfaces
can rely on analogue pattern matching and should be considered to be proper phenotropic
interfaces. This would be the case for an audio interface that would work by recognizing a sound
pattern from a temporal (i.e. 1D) sound waveform.
3.1.3. Beyond APIs and declarative interfaces
It had been advocated that traditional protocols should come to be replaced by APIs and
programmatic interfaces [14]
. This technological prophecy has not been entirely vindicated by
the evolution of interfaces within distributed software systems : the current trend is more towards
declarative interfaces la REST or web services), which hide the mechanics of a programmatic
interface beneath a more general purpose language (such as WSDL) that is itself based on XML.
From the point of view presented here, this evolution remains within the dominant paradigm of
interfaces based on a formal language, whereas phenotropic interfaces forgo this model altogether.
3.2. Extending and clarifying the pattern recognition model of Lanier's phenotropics
The difference between phenotropics and classical interfaces draws upon the theory of semiotics,
which does itself subsumes the classical theory of formal languages.
The use of pattern recognition does not in itself characterize phenotropic interfaces. An OCR-based
interface where the text transcript of a declarative, programmatic or protocol-based interface
would be recognized is not a phenotropic interface, because the pattern recognition works at the
level of glyphs and the upper levels (the lexical and grammatical levels) are still handled in a
classical way. As mentioned before, a 2D graphical code that uses a different kind of formal
language with a 2D syntax is not phenotropic either.
Barcode is a misnomer for these codes as, unlike their 1D counterparts, they are not limited to using bars as their basic symbols.
Examples are Aztec codes, cybercodes, „data matrix, QRcodes, shotcodes, semacodes, etc…)
Syntax should be taken here to mean the arrangement of individual signs in a language with at least two levels of articulation (where
a meaningful sign is made up of a combination of elemental signs). This syntax defines a global sign with semantic mapping (e.g. a
morpheme) as a 2D geometric assemblage between lower-level individual signs (e.g. graphemes), rather than merely prescribing a
generation/recognition mechanism mapped to a sequential arrangement of alphabet signs, as Chomskyan syntaxes do.
The Jini infrastructure[14] was such an attempt at hiding protocols under programmatic interfaces, where the mutual adaptation
between both parties was made possible by code mobility
What characterizes a phenotropic interface is that the upper level of representation of the interface
should be analog and recognized as a global pattern. It should not need to be parsed through a
syntactic analyzer! This does not preclude the existence of a lower level syntax-based
representation, provided it is not used as such in the recognition process. This would be the case
for e.g. recognizing statistical patterns in a text, where the lower level analysis of the text itself
would not be relevant for recognition, though it could be used as an input to the recognition
As such this recognition should
lend itself naturally to approximation, which confers non-brittleness and robustness
bridge the semantic gap inherent in symbolic representations, without requiring the
previous definition of a language at various levels (an alphabet of symbols and a syntax for
the arrangement of these symbols)
3.2.1. Sensing as contextual identification
Things that can be sensed are implicitly identified, which means that they are identified on a non-
absolute basis, only relatively, in a given context. It is the context itself that makes this matching
amount to an identification that may become more or less explicit according to the amount and
relevance of the context that can be brought to bear.
The key difference between traditional identification and the kind of sensing that we advocate here
is that this recognition does not require prior knowledge of a set of codes or protocols used for
communication between the sensor and the object, nor does it require a priori registration of the
object in a database or its one-to-one mapping with some universally unique identifier.
An example is given in the table below through the differences between four possible means to
identify an appliance : with an RFID tag, a matrix code, by recognizing its shape and texture, or by
recognizing its sound patterns.
Matrix code
Shape + texture
Layers of
3 (object ID, binary
>2, depending on
particular code
(object ID or
reference of object
ID, 2D code
0 (1 if digitized)
0 (1 if digitized)
Table 1 Differentiating non-phenotropic (columns 2-3) and phenotropic (columns 4-5) interfaces for identification of an
Only the rightmost two columns of this table correspond to phenotropic interfaces proper. We will
elaborate on this example in the last section of this article.
4. The stigmergic web
4.1. Stigmergic networks as distributed physical memories
4.1.1 Actuating as leaving signs to be picked up by sensors
This meaning of stigmergy extends the original concept proposed by P.P. Grassé [4] as it had
already been adopted in such fields as swarm robotics and collective intelligence in general since
Modifications of the physical environment enacted by actuators can be of any kind, either transient
(such as the emission of sound waves, electromagnetic waves, etc.) or remanent (such as leaving a
mark on a surface, moving an object, etc.) and the corresponding environmental variations get
sensed in turn. Remanent effects are in principle the only ones that correspond to stigmergic
communication in the strict original sense, whereas signals transmitted by sound or
electromagnetic waves require implicit synchronous coupling between the actuator and the
sensors that detect the change. Stigmergic communication is thus, if taken in a strict sense,
asynchronous, relying on a change of state of the environment and making possible a temporal
decoupling of sensors and actuators that share this environment, much as different processes pass
messages or concurrently access a shared memory in traditional computing paradigms.
Common usage has already tended to extend the original sense of stigmergy, especially towards
communication through virtual environments or even shared wiki-like web sites. These extensions
are not consistent with the original ideas inherent in the concept of stigmergy: we think it is
important to restrict the word to its proper meaning of communication that is intrinsically
physical, non-symbolic and non-protocol-based, by contrast to data communication (or language-
based communication for human agents). Even if its does not rely on protocols or articulated
language, stigmergic communication involves different kinds of implicit representations for the
information shared through this "channel", which may be classified as either "sematectonic" or
sign-based, qualitative or quantitative. They share the property that they are learnt through the
operation of the system, relying on pattern recognition rather than on network protocols and
predefined data formats.
4.1.2. Mediating access conflicts by physical laws
Coupled phenotropic-stigmergic extensions of networks view the physical world as a scratchpad
read-write memory, where the read mechanism is phenotropic/associative and the write
mechanism is stigmergic. This raises the question, common in concurrency and database theory, of
managing write-write conflicts. As in the case of phenotropic read access, no specific protocol is
required for this: physics itself provides a convenient mechanism for avoiding conflicts or
arbitrating them if they appear. For example if 2 actuators try to move one and the same thing
concurrently (at the same time) by applying a force to it, the resulting motion may by predicted by
the law of dynamics as resulting from the vector sum of these two forces.
4.2. Sitgmergic network as learning & self-organizing network
4.2.1. Stigmergic links as closing the control loop
Stigmergic links play a key role when the network is viewed from a control theory viewpoint: they
are the links that transform the system represented by the sensor-actuator network from a
disconnected set of feed-forward sensor systems and open-loop controllers to an overall closed-loop
(feedback) control system. This means that, thanks to their network connection, sensors and
actuators that may have been deployed for different applications and were not meant to operate
together, will "make up a system" because the sensors pick up the effect of changes to the
environment effected by actuators. Of course some sensors and actuators were already configured
by construction to operate in closed loop as a tightly coupled system (e.g. a robot). Stigmergic links
model either these existing intended links and new, unintended relationships that are both
relevant when analysing the behavior of the overall sensor-actuator network as a whole.
4.2.2. Actuating as probing the environment to integrate learning in the overall network
Modelling the overall sensor-actuator network as a closed-loop system brings the possibility of
applying general machine learning theory to the network viewed as an overarching system.
Going beyond the most classical machine learning models that could apply, it is interesting to view
the system in the light of such transdisciplinary concepts as enaction, embodied cognition and
developmental learning, whereby the learning process of either a human (from the natural sciences
viewpoint) or a robot (from an engineering viewpoint) is either analysed or engineered as directly
based on physical interaction with the environment.
The idea that an infant learns a great deal about its environment by prodding this environment
and absorbing the responses to the stimuli it applies, has been applied with astonishing success to
robotics, opening up the whole field of "developmental learning" [8] .
Viewing an indoor environment equipped with a sensor-actuator network , i.e. a smart space, as
an outside-in robot, the same idea can apply to the learning process where the smart space would
probe its own environment, i.e. its inside to learn from its reactions and discover its own
sensorimotor "affordances". This idea can be used for dynamic configuration of the smart space, or
more mundanely, for mutual calibration of the sensors, by broadening the configuration space
under which they operate.
5. Architecture and complexity issues with phenotropic-stigmergic
5.1. The 3 levels of stigmergic-phenotropic webs, sensor-actuator networks and web
of things/services
The IoT is potentially too far-reaching and too heterogeneous to be subsumed by a single unified
networking protocol, model or architecture, at any level.
Two widespread misconceptions are the following that he IoT will be an all-IPv6 transparent and
homogeneous network, and that all "things" in its reach will ultimately be identified through RFID.
The architecture that can be envisioned for the IoT as envisioned here (if we keep that name in
spite of its limitations) is not directly similar to classical layered network models. It could be
represented by an hourglass, where upper layers mediate as proxy nodes for those of the lower
hierarchical level, and lower levels have a wider reach than the upper ones, so the mapping from
upper to lower levels is one-to-many.
The uppermost level is a virtual overlay network whose nodes are software entities that can be
integrated in a high-level service architecture, making up a new web of virtual entities going
beyond the original document-centric web as well as the web of services that grew out of it. Some
of these entities will be the digital representatives of "things" in whatever infrastructure is
appropriate for this.
The second lower level corresponds more or less to the classical notion of network proper
comprising all machines, devices and physical things that are integrated in a classical network,
making up the internet of devices (networks hosts in a classical sense, plus embedded machine
nodes and smart communicating devices comprising sensors & actuators)
The lowermost level is a virtual network of physical things that extends its reach towards all things
that can be identified and sensed through sensors, making up from beneath a capillary overlay on
the network of devices, with finer granularity and wider reach, as explained before.
Things are thus "hyperlinked" physically through sensors, forming a graph of sensing links , but
these things also have “digital shadows”, their representations that are conveyed and made
accessible through the network, whatever they are (symbolic IDs such as EPC numbers, services
attached to these things or devices, direct or abstracted iconic representations…).
These representations may be linked in a way that is closer to the web of services which itself grew
out of the original web of documents, matching outgrowths of the physical web of things in an
extended digital web. These digital shadows may correspond at the very least, for passive items, to
an entry in a database, or, in the case of more active devices like sensors or actuators, to a service
registered in an UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration)-compatible registry or
similar networked service directory.
As the IoT extends its reach beyond the present-day internet of devices and becomes integrated
with the internet of services, new applications will emerge beyond existing bread-and-butter M2M.
Present-day M2M applications are mostly one-to-one and ad hoc. Emerging applications rely on
the federated use of coupled sensors and actuators in any given environment, and thus make use
of federated capabilities of all sensors and actuators available in this environment rather than
simple individual sensors and actuators
In this broader vision of the IoT, things or persons can get attached to networks in a dynamic and
temporary fashion, relying on context to disambiguate their identity with regard to the network at
large, whenever a permanent universal identity of these things or persons is either not available,
not needed, or withdrawn for privacy reasons.
This opens up new applications that bring together those that had been previously addressed from
the ambient intelligence viewpoint (enriched and contextual user interfaces) and those from M2M
(networked sensors &actuators)
5.2. Generalizing network/services directory
A classical network or service directory integrates network nodes or services that have a
permanent identity attached to them, and this identity is used as a key to register them in the
corresponding registry. In the sense articulated above, a phenotropic network may integrate
"things" that are only labelled in a temporary and contextual way, not identified in an absolute
way. These may correspond to untagged items in such applications as inventory management, or
to physical placeholders used as tangible interfaces. These things need not be matched to an
absolute identifier à la EPCglobal, provided they are recognized unambiguously in a given context
of use.
Such "phenotropic directories" could natively be queried in an associative way instead of being
queried exclusively by an exactly matching, ID, key, or digital attribute. This could correspond to
querying by location, by shape, or more generally by all kinds of analog pattern-like attributes.
A more far-out application of these ideas in the domain of networking could be towards the
possibility to bridge two networks with incompatible protocols with some kind of "phenotropic
bridge". Again, this does not mean reverting to analog networking: provided some low-level
lowest common denominator digital standard could be shared, only the upper levels need be
matched by pattern matching. This is actually closer to what Lanier had in mind when he
originally put forward phenotropic interfaces as an alternative glue software systems.
5.3. The complex systems view
Phenotropic-stigmergic networks represent not only an order-of-magnitude quantitative leap in
the number of nodes connected to the networks, but a qualitative leap in their complexity,
especially due to the intricacy of the feedback loops they entail between sensors and actuators,
both through the physical environment and through the network. The tools of spectral graph
theory and graph-based complexity theory provide a new basis to study several complexity
aspects related to these new kinds of networks, using such tools as clustering coefficients, average
path lengths and degree exponents [15]. This complexity analysis is essential to uncover the
potential undesirable phenomena that might emerge in these networks, and should also allow us
to get a handle on their cognitive properties.
Beyond the first stage of analysing these networks, complexity models open up the possibility to
optimize them according to various criteria: robustness, safety, security, adaptability, evolvability
6. Application examples
6.1. Multisensor-based registration and monitoring/control of legacy devices in an
energy management system
Spontaneous ("zero-conf") integration of new devices in networks is much more than a
convenience short-cut: it is often a prerequisite for systems that have to be deployed at large (e.g.
in the homes of non-technical end users) without requiring the costly intervention of a skilled
technician. Generalizing PC-centric "plug and play", many distributed discovery protocols have
been proposed: whenever they address levels of interoperation above the basic network protocols,
as is the case in service-oriented architectures, these solutions usually rest on the fact that the
devices to be integrated are "known" in advance by the system in order to be recognized. Be it of a
programmatic or declarative nature, the corresponding interface of the device is "recognized" by
pattern matching and has to fit the interface of the reciprocating party in an exact fashion. This
does not make it possible to interface with legacy devices, or even with devices whose interfaces
conform to a high-level standard that is different from the one used by the host system or network.
Semantic-level interoperability solutions have been proposed to circumvent this requirement for
exact syntax-level matching, but they do mostly push the matching problem upwards by requiring
the alignment of (possibly implicit) ontologies under which different syntaxes corresponding to
the same semantics can be matched.
Phenotropic integration of non-network-enabled devices in a network or distributed system
amounts to this: instead of being identified by syntactic pattern-matching of some service interface
through a network, these devices are recognized on the basis of patterns of physical features
that would be sensed by the system, using available sensors in different modalities. The system
matches these observed patterns with its own stored patterns, supposed to be sufficiently generic
for this. This does more or less play the role of the semantic matching that has been attempted as a
replacement for the purely syntactic matching, but is much more robust as it does not rely on a
predefined standard.
We are currently implementing this analog matching as a replacement zero-conf mechanism for
legacy non-network-enabled home appliances that have to be indirectly integrated in a home Local
Area Network for the purposes of energy management. Multiple combined sensor modalities are
used for this, and pattern recognition is performed on these joint modalities after they have
undergone a binding process . We use a basic kit of sensors mounted on a multi-sensor radio mote
(figure 3) comprising:
microphone (detects noise patterns)
vibration sensor
temperature sensor
light sensor
Figure 3 Multisensor radio module for device monitoring
together with an electrical current sensor working via a plug inserted on the appliances mains
connection. Patterns observed jointly through these sensors makes it possible to "recognize these
appliances through their characteristic features (like e.g. for electric power consumption an oven
showing a fairly steady plateau pattern whereas a washing machine has characteristic peaks and
troughs). These appliances are then matched to a category in the system’s own ontology. Contrary
to a direct protocol-based semantic matching, this process has a property of graceful degradation :
if the data provided by sensors is incomplete or ambiguous to match the appliance to a specific
category, it is matched to a more generic one, and the system can still make do with this matching.
This multisensory pattern recognition mechanism is also used for network-enabled devices that
provide only interfaces in low-level protocols, to provide a replacement for non-existent semantic
matching. These legacy devices may have to fall back afterwards on a mode of operation relying
on a least common denominator protocol (whatever it is) that can be shared with the rest of the
system. However, the integration of these devices in the system will still be enhanced by the fact
that they are recognized at a level higher than that afforded by this least common denominator
After appliances are “recognized” by the system in this way, the operation of our energy
management system (requiring the monitoring of the actual state of the appliances in real-time)
can still rely on sensor-based interfaces as a replacement for direct network connexion, if needed.
Multisensor pattern recognition is used to recognize the instantaneous states of devices and this
state can be taken into account by the system.
A similar mechanism is used to monitor rooms (or subsets of the overall target space) as entities
that can be integrated in the system as distinct entities and become “peers” in the extended home
LAN that also integrates the legacy devices monitored as described above. The multi-sensor
module does in this case integrate (figure 4):
ultrasonic sensors
passive infrared sensors
ambient microphones (coupled with voice activity detection system)
light sensor
Figure 4 Multi-sensor radio mote for room monitoring
6.2. Coupling of an informational system and a physical system
The same idea can be generalized whenever an information system has to automatically identify a
model of a physical system composed of distinct entities that may individually be represented by
the system as single database entries, software components/agents or full-fledged services. These
entities can be contextually recognized by the system through some pattern detected by sensors
rather than through an identification system. Though this won't replace RFID or equivalent, it may
be sufficient for the purpose at hand.
This may be applied in the following examples :
monitoring/managing a fleet of vehicles (supposing they are not identical, or, if they are identical,
that their individual identity does not matter to the system)
managing an inventory of items that need not be identified individually à la RFID, only by category.
If these items need to be identified individually, this could be done by differentiating them by optical
codes such as 2D codes without necessarily applying the corresponding standard and without
having these items registered in a database through these codes used as an absolute ID
monitoring people in a e.g. a public place, a shopping mall, a square, a neighborhood in a way that
respects their rights to privacy, i.e. by not matching them with an absolute identity that can be cross-
referenced. People are only "labeled" by the system through a temporary contextual ID that makes it
possible to differentiate them from other persons in the same environment, not to identify them in an
absolute way.
6.3. Tangible and gesture-based interfaces
We have said that the evolution of the internet of things as proposed here is inspired from the
evolution of human interfaces. Tangible user interfaces (TUI) bring the two together by recruiting
everyday "things" as physical proxies for virtual entities. Tangible interfaces were initially
proposed [13] as input interface alternatives to the classical "controls" associated with the WIMP-
GUI interface model. They were meant to overcome a cognitive gap between device and function,
as tangible controls are supposed to be dedicated (non-multiplexed) and may be directly
representational, in an iconic and concrete rather than symbolic or abstract way, of the particular
control functionality they support.
Most tangible interfaces proposals (usually at the concept or demo stage) rely on devices that are
identified by the system in a very classical way, through either RFID tags or 2D optical codes. The
ideas proposed here could very much be applied to these particular things : TUI objects need not at
all be matched by the system to a unique ID, they need only be identified in their context of use,
and most of them will in fact be used only temporarily.
If we wish to associate a physical item, whatever it is, with a particular functionality, we need only
perform a "phenotropic association" with the TUI system. This amounts to have the item registered
as a pattern through some combination of sensors (the most obvious for this is a camera, but
another “weaker” modality can also be used if sufficient in context, like the weight of the item).
The association need not be limited to the static recognition of the item itself, it can be extended to
actions performed with this item that can be matched with particular functionalities. This
resonates with the general idea of gesture-based interfaces, which are phenotropic interfaces when
the recognized gestures are not limited to a predefined symbolic repertoire. These gestures are
then recognized in an analogue way, with a graceful degradation and approximation mechanism
inherent in this pattern recognition.
7. Conclusions and perspective
The general ideas that are the subject of this paper have been linked to very concrete engineering
examples in the applications we just described, but they may still appear to be, in their previous
exposition as a general conceptual framework, very far outside the mainstream of computer
Yet, beyond our examples, actual digital systems with a coupled phenotropic-stigmergic interface
to their environment do already exist on a very broad basis : robots work in exactly this way!
Seen from a very narrow perspective, robotics could seem to lag behind computer science.
Mainstream robotics is still dominated by an archetype of self-contained, stand-alone contraptions,
whose connectivity is still at the stage of the pre-internet PC industry, exploiting only marginally,
at best, the potential for network-based operation. Robotics software has yet to move beyond
closed platforms and to adopt generic high-level models such as service-oriented architectures that
would make it possible for them to interoperate in networked environments. Distributed robotics
has yet to become something else than an oxymoron, moving beyond basic remote control, as used
mostly for industrial robotic equipments, a stage of evolution corresponding to early networked
computing of the client-server kind.
Yet for what concerns the discovery of their own environment, advanced robotic systems are way
ahead of anything that has been attempted by mainstream computer engineering. They can be set
to run in such an environment and phenotropically discover it without any previous manual
configuration, possibly by stimergically prodding it extensively. They do not need to identify
obstacles with RFID tags to avoid bumping into them, or to run an association protocol with
objects before grasping them.
Computer science has a few things to learn from robotics in these regards, and what we propose is
a way to carry this beyond traditional robotics Robots are not only good at recognizing their
environments, we could even suppose that, when they become networked for good, they will be
better at recognizing each other than regular parts of a distributed system currently are, and
precisely because this recognition process will be phenotropic. Maybe not quite in the sense that
Jaron Lanier originally envisioned, where serial 1D wire-based communication would be replaced
by some parallel 2D surface-based form of communication. Phenotropic and stigmergic
communication between two robots is already built-in as communication mediated by the physical
environment, supported by the cross-coupling of their respective sensors and actuators. So maybe,
contrary to what Lanier thought, it is not that much of a problem if they use standard wireless
networks and their cumbersome protocols as a regular means of communication, because the
analog pattern-recognition-based robustness and graceful degradation properties will be there
nonetheless, supported by the parallel mode of physical communication that is inherent in the
nature of robots.
Generalizing these ideas from networked robots to distributed embedded systems, all of which are
also composed, deep down, of doubly coupled sensors and actuators, leads us beyond the simple
graph-based models from which we started. The conclusive idea we can draw from this is that
phenotropic-stigmergic communication, mediated by the physical environment through sensors
and actuators, may become just as important as digital communication to allow the self-
configuration, analyse the complexity and ensure the robustness of distributed embedded systems.
This new research agenda deserves to be addressed with competences from graph-based
complexity theory, cognitive sciences, control theory, as well as system architecture.
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The Web of Things need not be restrained to a mere software-engineering construct or interoperability enabler. Viewed as a graph, the WoT may become the scaffolding of a comprehensive model of physical environments, capturing relevant aspects of their intertwined structural, spatial and behavioral dependencies As such, it can support context-rich mediation of data for network-enabled monitoring and control of these environments, augmenting them into multiscale and multilevel cyber-physical systems (CPS) and, more generally, systems of systems (CPSS).
... Unfortunately this tagging process can be very costly and tedious since the number of "things" is potentially in the order of trillion. Automatic identification and data capture technologies based on nature features like using biometric data are under exploitation [CAS] to extend the IoT which has been originally defined as the "global networking connecting any smart object" by the IoT-A project 10 to all sense-able things without necessary a digital interface [Pri12] like a legacy appliance or a human. ...
The Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart Environments (SE) have attracted a lot of research and development activities during the last decade. Yet many present-day IoT/SE applications are still limited to the acquisition and processing of sensor data and its context, with control, if any, using either basic solutions or requiring human intervention, far away from the automatic control which is an essential factor to promote the technologies. This thesis targets to bring knowhow from control theory and reactive systems to the IoT/SE domain to achieve a solution with a formal method for the missing control aspect. We propose the extension of a framework in order to build a shared generic IoT/SE infrastructure offering high-level interfaces to reduce design effort, and enabling the self-configuration and adaptation of control applications over generic properties of the environment without human interaction by using general knowledge over the domain that applies to each target instance of IoT/SE system. In this extended framework, individual physical entities (including all relevant "things", appliances and subsets of space) may be grouped as virtual entities by shared properties to provide a higher level abstraction for control and other applications and better adaptation to lower level configuration changes. Requiring a generic common denominator solution shared by all IoT/SE applications in a given environment, we propose for this infrastructure, to model by finite state automata the target entities to be monitored and controlled, including both individual entities and their groupings, as well as things and space entities, to be able to apply discrete controller synthesis (DCS) technique over any of these at different levels of abstraction and granularity. DCS is a formal method which constructs automatically a controller, if it exists, guaranteeing the required control objectives regarding to the given system behavior model in terms of synchronous parallel automata. The existing BZR programming language and Sigali tools are employed to perform DCS and generate a controller in an automatic way. Necessary supporting software modules are proposed in the implementation such as the relation maintenance module keeping the correct association between individual entity instances and groups, and dispatching the action orders from the high level control to corresponding actuators. This module would evolve later to a more generic solution such as a graph data base including both the general knowledge base and specific environment instance relations. Conflict resolution between objectives of control coming from concurrent controllers is also indispensable due to the intended openness of the platform. A java based context simulator has been developed to simulate the home environment within several scenarios proposed for the validation, such as electrical load control and activity context adaptation.
Optimization through coordination of processes in complex systems is a classic challenge in AI research. A specific class of algorithms takes for this inspiration from biology. Such bio-inspired algorithms achieve coordination and optimization by transferring, for example, concepts of communication in insect swarms to typical planner problems in the AI domain. Among those bio-inspired algorithms, an often used concept is the concept of stigmergy. In a stigmergic system, actions carried out by members of the swarm (or, in AI domains, by single agents), leave traces in the environment that subsequently work as incentive for following agents. While there is a noticable uptake of stigmergy as coordination mechanism in AI, we see the common understanding of one core element of stigmergic systems still lacking: The notion of the shared digital stigmergic medium, in which agents carry out their actions, and in which traces left by these actions manifest. Given that the medium is in literature considered the element “that underlies the true power of stigmergy”, we believe that a well-defined, properly modelled, and technically sound digital medium is essential for correct, understandable, and transferable stigmergic algorithms. We therefore suggest the use of read-write Linked Data as underlying medium for decentralized stigmergic systems. We first derive a set of core requirements that we see crucial for stigmergic digital media from relevant literature. We then discuss read-write Linked Data as suitable choice by showing that it fulfills given the requirements. We conclude with two practical application examples from the domains of optimization and coordination respectively.KeywordsLinked dataResource Description FrameworkStigmergyNature-inspired algorithmDigital mediumOptimizationCoordination
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This chapter presents an overview of the domain of ambient intelligence, by first situating it in a broad perspective of technological evolution and then by describing it more analytically in two complementary ways: through a review of the different "threads" of research that have been woven into this cross-disciplinary field, and by confronting key alternatives that underlie both the conceptualization of the domain and the corresponding design issues.
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ThisvolumecontainstheproceedingsoftheInternetofThings(IOT)Conference 2008, the ?rst international conference of its kind. The conference took place in Zurich,Switzerland, March26–28,2008. The term ‘Internet of Things’ hascome to describe a number of technologies and researchdisciplines that enable the - ternet to reach out into the real world of physical objects. Technologies such as RFID, short-range wireless communications, real-time localization, and sensor networks are becoming increasingly common, bringing the ‘Internet of Things’ into industrial, commercial, and domestic use. IOT 2008 brought together le- ing researchersand practitioners, from both academia and industry, to facilitate the sharing of ideas, applications, and research results. IOT 2008 attracted 92 high-quality submissions, from which the technical program committee accepted 23 papers, resulting in a competitive 25% acc- tance rate. In total, there were over 250 individual authors from 23 countries, representing both academic and industrial organizations. Papers were selected solely on the quality of their blind peer reviews. We were fortunate to draw on the combined experience of our 59 program committee members, coming from the most prestigious universities and research labs in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. Program committee members were aided by no less than 63 external reviewers in this rigorous process, in which each committee member wrote about 6 reviews. The total of 336 entered reviews resulted in an average of 3. 7 reviews per paper, or slightly more than 1000 words of feedback for each paper submitted.
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