Do you know your IQ, that little number that’s supposed to measure how smart you are? Forget it. Individual intelligence is old news, collective intelligence (CI) is the future. And it’s already here. Google lets you access the collective records of the world via internet searches. Wikipedia assembles the shared knowledge of humanity in an ever refined research tool that anyone can access. Oh, these systems have their limits, to be sure, but they allow an individual to quickly leverage the expertise of millions in just a few seconds. That’s incredible, and that’s the promise of CI. The Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT was formed in 2006 by Thomas Malone and his colleagues. CCI tries to answer a guiding question: how can people and computers be connected so that collectively they act more intelligently than any individual, group, or computer has ever done before? Thomas Malone addressed the World Economic Forum in Switzerland earlier this year and explained the nature of collective intelligence, how we may track it, and how it could help solve problems like climate change. Check out his talk in the video below.
Collective intelligence can include distributed computing. We’ve seen how a complex problem can be solved by using millions of connected computers working in tandem. So too can any task be divided among a set of human peers. You do this all the time at work, or at home with your family. CI takes the same phenomenon and spreads it among thousands or millions. Linux, the operating system, is an example of CI – it was built and is continually updated by the collective work of its users. Similarly, OpenWetWare is a synthetic biology resource maintained by a group of users, generally with expertise in the field. Future CI may rely on cultivating expertise (among billions of humans, there is likely to be at least one expert in every possible field). It could also harness the statistical genius of a collective of average people (among billions of humans, there’s bound to be at least a few people who have a great idea about a problem).
The great advantage of CI as opposed to IQ, is that CI is growing rapidly, probably exponentially. Individual intelligence is hard to measure – there are many critiques of IQ testing based on racial bias, economic bias, the limited scope of what kinds of skills are tested, and how such tests are applied. Still, it seems that the average IQ is slowly growing at a rate of 3 points per decade – the so-called Flynn Effect. Again, there’s debate over what causes the Flynn Effect (genetics, socialization, nutrition, etc.), but the trend is there. It’s just too slow to really matter. A slight rise in individual intelligence can’t compare to the effect of hundreds of millions of people going online in the next decade. Internet connectivity is increasing quicker than biology could every hope to keep up with.
Another reason why CI will dominate IQ is that individual intelligence is subsumed by the collective. An expert or genius can participate in a group task as easily as an average person. Collective intelligence reflects the group work of the smart, the average, and the dull. While this may seem to average out, a wise application of CI will be able to filter out the dross while saving the best work – no matter where it comes from.
To this end, CCI at MIT is working to understand and guide collective intelligence. Their research includes way to measure CI, studies of how CI is already used in organizations, and tracking how individuals interact in a group. They’ve even started a Handbook of Collective Intelligence – it’s written and edited as a wiki of course. CCI at MIT is also working on applications for collective intelligence: they’re looking into how groups may generate solutions to climate change, make accurate predictions about the future, or find ways to improve healthcare.
Collective intelligence can also take the form of collective art or creativity. Do you play a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG)? Games like World of Warcraft allow millions of users to create a shared entertainment experience within a controlled virtual environment. Little Big Planet and similar games actually have users build levels for other users to explore. The best levels get shared and enjoyed more – CI creates a better video game. CNN has an interesting story about how this trend is extending into other artistic media like music and film.
Kim-Ung Yong might be the world’s smartest man, his IQ is reportedly 210. Marilyn Vos Savant may have an IQ of 186 or even 230 (depends on how you measure it). But these are just the brightest stars in a Milky Way of intelligence. As many average computers can be harnessed into doing the work of a supercomputer (or many such supercomputers), so too will we harness our individual minds for a shared goal through the internet. In fact, CI is really a combination of both these trends. Distributed computing and distributed human problem solving will become one and the same as man and machine become more connected. Every bit of intelligence (human or artificial) will be needed to solve humanity’s grand challenges and take advantage of our growing technologies. So jump in any time, guys. Edit a wiki, join a distributed computation project, start a tech blog…wait. Um, ignore that last one. We’ve got it covered. Promise.
[image credits: JMKnapp via Flickr]
[sources: Indiana University, CCI at MIT]