Collective Brainpower

Using new technologies to amplify human intelligence

Prof. Thomas Malone says that collective intelligence is the only hope we have to save the planet.  Photo: Richard Howard

Prof. Thomas Malone says that collective intelligence is the only hope we have to save the planet. Photo: Richard Howard

Can collective intelligence save the planet? “It’s the only hope we have,” says Prof. Thomas Malone, adding that “no one really knows whether we’ll succeed.”

Malone — who is “basically an optimist” and believes that in the end, we will probably make choices that will, in fact, save the Earth — is the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and is director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.

He launched the Center in 2006 in part to learn how to harness the collective intelligence of the planet to help solve the world’s biggest problems — climate change, poverty, terrorism, healthcare, or crime — problems too big to be solved by any one expert or group. While, he says, groups like countries, companies, armies, and families have used various forms of collective intelligence for centuries to solve problems, the goal of the Center is to combine pooled human brainpower with new information technologies “to solve problems in ways that would never have been thinkable before.”

Google, Wikipedia, Linux, and YouTube already are using pooled brainpower to bring forth new solutions, he says. Consider Google. Millions create websites linked to each other; the information is harvested by Google algorithms, so when you type in a question, the answers are amazingly intelligent. Or take Wikipedia, where thousands across the globe create a huge, high-quality intellectual project with almost no centralized control. To best use these systems, he says, we need to better understand them. That’s a main goal of the Center, where the big question is: How can people and computers be connected so that collectively they act more intelligently than any person, group, or computer has ever done before?

One of their main projects is the Climate Collaboratorium, which harnesses the collective intelligence of thousands across the world to develop plans for what we can do about global climate change. Most recently, more than 2,000 users have visited the site, with 350 registered users, who have contributed 22 finalized plans with another 35 in progress. Users of the site include: the general public; world-class experts; moderators, who help organize and manage the input; and national and international policymakers.

Malone says: “We believe that for this site to realize its potential it should have at least thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people involved. Of course, we don’t know if this will happen, but we think it’s an experiment worth doing.”

HOW IT WORKS

The site has online tools to help people collaborate effectively — computer simulations to predict the likely impacts of actions included in a specific plan; a tool to allow people to debate the pros and cons of those plans; and collective decision-making tools to help people find the most promising methods. The system allows people to vote and to rate each other’s contributions, a good way to filter out unhelpful suggestions, Malone says.

In another project, the Center is measuring collective intelligence of groups using statistical approaches, much like those used to measure IQ in people. In addition, it is mapping the “genomes of collective intelligence,” that innovative organizations use to harness the intelligence of crowds; and it also is working on collective predictions, which could signal the actions of a business competitor, or perhaps, a military enemy.

Malone was raised on an 800-acre farm near Roswell, New Mexico, a town made famous after the alleged recovery of extraterrestrial debris from an unidentified object that crashed there in 1947. (“The funny thing is,” he says, “when I was growing up, nobody ever talked about it.”)

In 2004, he wrote the popular book, The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style, and Your Life. He has published more than 75 articles, research papers, and book chapters. Co-editor of three books, he is also an inventor with 11 patents. He cofounded three software companies and lectures around the world. In some ways, he says, the work he’s doing now may be the most important work of his life.

WISE CHOICES

“The physical world and the worlds of human thought and communication have always interpenetrated each other,” he says. “When members of a hunting tribe sat around a fire telling stories, or people read literature reproduced on printing presses, or talked to each other through telegraphs and telephones, they were in a kind of cyberspace. Now, the only real novelty is that we have electronic technology to greatly amplify the cyberworld,” he says, adding that we’ll see much more of it in the future.

But for what purpose?

“Well, in some sense, that’s the most important question of all,” he says. “In the next few decades, we will be making choices that will profoundly affect many future generations.” Perhaps, he says, even our survival as a species will depend on how well we’re able to make choices that are not just smart, but also wise.

“If we want to make wise choices, we need to think more deeply about the world we want to create. And those answers can’t be found by logic or politics or economics,” he says. “Ultimately, they can only be found by looking within ourselves.”

To participate in the Climate Collaboratorium, visit http://www.climatecollaboratorium.org

by Liz Karagianis |

 

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Prof. Thomas Malone says that collective intelligence is the only hope we have to save the planet.  Photo: Richard Howard

Prof. Thomas Malone says that collective intelligence is the only hope we have to save the planet. Photo: Richard Howard

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