I'd like to use a story with a sapient swarm intelligence because I find the idea interesting, but I'm having trouble developing some of the finer details of how this intelligence would interact with humans and aliens similar to humans.

Current traits of this species

A swarm of this species is comprised of ant-like insects with a widely varying phenome. Each swarm gives rise to a swarm intelligence, but different intelligences within the species do not compete. Instead, if one swarm comes close to another, the intelligences merge into a single whole, and only split if enough members of the new swarm move out of communication range. The larvae act like chemical factories, synthesizing complex molecules for use in biology-based technology. This technology is advanced enough for the intelligences to be space-faring. The intelligences are sapient, which for my purposes I've defined as:

  1. Able to understand the world in terms of abstract concepts and able to reason quantitatively
  2. Able to learn and plan
  3. Able to sacrifice short term interests for long term gains
  4. Possesses theory of mind. Each swarm intelligence is aware of itself, and aware that other creatures outside its species have their own minds.

However, due to the fact that there is no real "individual" intelligence in this species, only different instances of the same intelligence, I'm currently planning for the species to not have inherent aptitude for communication like humans do. Single insects of this species communicate with each other to form their swarms, but the intelligences do not.

Details I'd like help on in this question

  • Is it possible for such an intelligence to learn how to communicate with humans, or for humans to learn how to communicate with such an intelligence? For example, could it think about and articulate such things as goals, wants, desires, or does sapience guarantee the ability to think about those things? Or would such a swarm be varelse, to use Card's Hierarchy of Foreignness?
  • If it is possible for intelligences of this species to communicate, what would those communications look like? For example, would we need to hook up translators to models of human society, and exchange information that way? Or could we talk with an intelligence the same as they might any other human?

Edit: I altered the line regarding theory of mind to be more specific.I altered the line regarding theory of mind to be more specific. I also included a note regarding the technology level permitting space travel.

  • $\begingroup$ Is this a technological civilization? As such, they should understand the theory of information, as well as the methods of its transmission and storage - storage outside of the swarm. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Sep 13, 2021 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander yes: I added a note that their biological technology permits space travel. If the species possessed an information theory, would their storage and organization of information be understandable by humans? $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2021 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ On a low level, it's all just bits. Two civilizations should have no problem demonstrating each other their common knowledge, like physics or astronomy. On the other hand, conducting human-specific tasks like diplomacy can be very hard. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Sep 13, 2021 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ Supposed the swarm is aware of the concept, "communication" will require some medium, to transfer information. Do these swarm entities have senses ? Do they have means to hear, or see things and interpret these things collectively, and respond appropriately ? Would there be any form input possible, that reaches this collective mind.. and would there be any output that can be received and interpreted by the autonomous intelligent being ? How do the physics of this communication work.. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Sep 13, 2021 at 22:01

3 Answers 3


You yourself are a swarm intelligence. It takes billions of little neurons interacting together to produce the emergent behavior called intelligence. It makes little difference whether the "neurons" are glued together in close proximity or are free-roaming.

As for your question, there's no reason to suppose aliens (especially exotic ones) to communicate vocally the way we do. There are many modes (correct word? not a linguist) even among humans. There are whistling languages, sign languages (and so many!), even the perennial joke of "communicating via interpretive dance".

They might have experience with two or more modes, and thus the ability to imagine other modes of communication.

The bigger problem, is of course, that science fiction writers tend to imagine aliens as being just like us even if they look weird. Intelligence doesn't mean "human-like", after all. It's merely a survival adaptation that allows an organism to anticipate dangers and rewards, to avoid the former and pursue the latter. Even if they were essentially human-like in their psychology, the vast (nearly infinite) range of motivations, beliefs, compulsions, perspectives, values, and norms among purely human cultures means that the mechanical concerns of translating alien languages leaves alot of mystery to be resolved... none of which we can help you with.


In regards to a pheromone-based language, I would like to point out that this probably reduces the rate of communication (dependent on the details). For instance, as I type out this answer on a keyboard (full-sized!), I'm probably topping out at a rate of 60wpm. I can speak vocally a bit faster... some quick Googling suggests that 150wpm or perhaps slightly higher is possible (and this varies language to language, some will have a far lower wpm rate, but each word conveys more meaning because words have so many declensions and modifications).

For typing, I have approximately 100 symbols, and the appendages to switch between them quickly... a fraction of a second surely. For speech, I have the 30 or 40 phonemes of English, plus maybe some vocal intonations (just a few in my language). And again, the ability to switch between those in a fraction of a second.

With Earth biology, how quickly can an organism start or stop secreting a substance? This is more of a chemistry question I suspect, less of a biology one... because even after they have stopped secreting a pheromone, the substance will persist at a perceivable level for some time (seconds or minutes, unlikely hours). They are likely to have far fewer "phonemes" to work with, the switching rate is far lower (3 or 4 orders of magnitude), and they might need a high overhead of error correction (even we need to repeat ourselves from time to time).

This has nothing to do with whether they are slow thinkers (as you see in some stories), but does mean they're probably slow speakers. A fast thinking, slow speaking alien might develop the compulsion to pack as much information as possible into a given communication (more so than my wall-of-text answer here), which if you wanted could be a plot point in your story.

Other implications are harder to discern. You might think that, whatever other factors make the gulf between humans and swarmies vast, at least they can communicate about the objective universe around them. They can agree on a periodic table of elements, the mass of the proton, and so forth. And well they might... but they might not. Greg Bear posits a species of alien for whom the idea of integers is completely foreign. To them, you never count anything precisely, but only approximately and statistically. Their math allows them a similar level of technological sophistication. There are other similar examples out there at least in fiction.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if I should edit my original question, but to be clear I was not suggesting that swarms of this species communicate vocally, but was imagining that any communication between a swarm intelligence and a human would likely need an audio-to-pheromone translator or something similar. This question is largely attempting to imagine a kind of mind that is, to your point, very different from us. Suggestions of any sort on how to realistically portray these differences are appreciated. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2021 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Kronimiciad The mechanism for viewing/hearing/perceiving the other species' communications is trivial (unless your intent is for them to use woo-woo mysticism nonsense, telepathy or whatever). If they have technology at all, they might well manufacture the devices themselves, if not, then humans would. There are other swarms, presumably the concept of needing to translate communication exists for them. The pheromone communication could actually lead to a much slower communication rate... I'll update my answer with details. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Sep 13, 2021 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ Integers won't be a problem, flashy stuff but not a problem. Price tags talk their language already 0.99cents, lol $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 13, 2021 at 22:23

We imagine any hive would struggle a lot with the first interactions. If this hive has some kind of psychic link, they might be mortified by the idea of anything existing outside of it, with its ideas of self and completely independent thoughts and means of communication. It will take a very long time to come to any kind of understanding with these strange individuals. Maybe it'll never happen.

If the hive communicates through other means (phermones, vocalizations, body language, etc.), it's probably a pretty rudimentary system, since everyone in the hive is kind of, by nature, on the same page all of the time. We think this would make first contact a little easier, but we aren't sure if the individual drone would even really recognize the alien as anything more than an intruder and threat to the hive.

As for the hive itself, we can't imagine they care for much except keeping themselves fed and spreading out to new planet-nests. Unless the Intelligence really passes its own judgement on the xenos, we can't see it really doing all that much in the way of traditional diplomacy without really changing the way the hive works into somethong far less alien or flattering.

We think any interaction would likely be very... symbolic. And mostly relying on the efforts of the individual intelligence, more than anything getting the drone's attention and holding it in a positive manner long enough to achieve anything, and even then abandining any attempts at language or cultural relation. We're thinking less treaties and diplomacy, and more cautiously convincing the hive that the individuals are not a threat while also coaxing their hordes of hungry drones from their nice little colonies, thank you very much.

This is a really difficult question! I hope some of our ideas helped in some way, and remember: EMBRACE THE SWARM. insectoid chattering


if one swarm comes close to another, the intelligences merge into a single whole, and only split if enough members of the new swarm move out of communication range

I am not sure such intelligence would recognize at first glance a human (single or in group) as intelligent, because it would lack the hability to merge.

More or less the same we human have long debated if humans from different parts of the world were intelligent only because they didn't have some hability deemed as basic.

Without the recognition of intelligence, there would be no push to communicate, not past the communication level we have with dogs or other animals.

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    $\begingroup$ This is what I meant when I said that the swarm intelligences possess theory of mind. They're self aware, and know that other creatures have their own distinct minds separate from that of the intelligences. I would argue that such a trait is an inevitable consequence of the ability to abstractly reason about the world. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2021 at 18:44

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