Internet Communications

What is emergent behavior?
Answered by Leonard Kleinrock
  • Leonard Kleinrock

    Leonard Kleinrock

  1. Leonard Kleinrock Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, UCLA


    Emergent behavior is unanticipated behavior shown by a system.  When you design a system, you usually think you know how it's going to behave. You think you know how its controls work.  You've written down the dynamic equations and analyzed its performance. But it may configure itself in a way that you did not anticipate, and it may expose a behavior, a phenomenon, a result, a performance that you did not see coming at you. One cause of such emergent behavior comes about because its control structure is all over the place.   The interaction of a large number of simple things is very hard to predict. The complexity is not in the individual things, but rather it's in the way in which they're interconnected and in the way people get interconnected.

    You put the right groups together, and they may behave in a strange way. Put a bunch of kids in a group. How are they going to behave? Well, it's hard to predict. And they'll surprise you. Art Linkletter said it so well, "Kids will say the damnedest things." So not knowing what the interactions are likely to be, it's very hard to analyze the way network objects or individuals will behave. And they will behave in unpredictable ways, and that's what we call emergent behavior. 

    A good example is the following.  In Brazil, fireflies twinkle at night. But there is some phenomenon, which makes them synchronize. That's an emergent behavior. No one of them is trying to sync. If I asked an audience to start applauding, you'd get regular applause (i.e., unsynchronized clapping of hands). And if I just said to them, "Synchronize your claps," within five seconds, they'd all be synchronized. How? That's a kind of emergent behavior, which I asked for. Well, these things happen all the time without understanding or anticipating or requesting them.

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