collective intelligence


Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007
5 - 7 p.m.
Bartos Theater

Abstract

A conversation about the theory and practice of collective intelligence, with emphasis on Wikipedia, other instances of aggregated intellectual work and on recent innovative applications in business.

Speakers

Karim R. Lakhani is an assistant professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at the Harvard Business School where he studies distributed innovation systems and the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities. Lakhani earned his Ph.D. in management from MIT in 2006.

Thomas W. Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the founder and director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and author of the book The Future of Work. Malone has published over 75 articles, research papers, and book chapters and is an inventor with 11 patents.

Alex (Sandy) Pentland is the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT where he directs the Media Lab's Human Dynamics research program. He is the founder of more than a dozen companies, research organizations, and academic communities and is currently founder and faculty director of MIT's Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship.

Summary

By Greg Peverill-Conti

[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

David Thorburn introduced the evening’s panel, explaining that the idea of collective intelligence has been a topic that the Communications Forum has covered in the past. He mentioned Howard Rheingold's 2002 session on Smart Mobs as an example. 

He asked panelist Thomas Malone to provide a definition and overview of collective intelligence.

Thomas Malone

Malone said the Communications Forum is an example of collective intelligence, in that it seeks to take advantage of the intelligence of the audience. Collective intelligence happens through conversations among a literate citizenry. 

Collective intelligence has been around for a very long time – families, armies, and countries – all can be said to be examples of collective intelligence. He pointed out that all of these groups (and others) have also exhibited collective stupidity. 

In the past few years, he said, there have been some interesting examples of a new kind of collective intelligence. Google – not just the company, but also the system – millions of people making Web pages around the world, the linking of those Web pages and developing the technology that harvests all of the information. It's an amazing example because it combines people and computers in a way that never existed on our planet before. 

Wikipedia is also an example of collective intelligence. And, again, it's not just the technology itself – a robust wiki software tool – but what’s amazing is the organizational design that has arisen around Wikipedia. This community has developed an organizational design that allows thousands of people from all over the world to collectively create an intellectual product without centralized control and with almost all of those people being volunteers.

These things are just the beginning of whole new classes of intelligent entities that we will see emerging over the coming decades. In order to take full advantage of them, we will need to understand their possibilities at a much deeper level than we do so far. That’s the goal of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence where the core research question we pose 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?”

Sandy Pentland

Sandy Pentland said that the reason people come together into groups is to be more intelligent. There are also problems that arise when groups collect – conflict, group think, etc. – and the larger the organization, the bigger these problems become. In some ways, collective intelligence can be seen as the attempt to avoid collective idiocy and simply break even.

This break-even point can be achieved by developing more sensible organizations based on data, science and mathematical modeling. In modern organizations, there is a great deal of organizational data that can be analyzed – emails, memos, etc. But the most important communication still happens face-to-face. This communication consists of the delicate, content-full discussions that really matter. Until recently, though, most of it was invisible and couldn't be organized and managed. Now, we are able to measure face-to-face communication in real time.

He cited research conducted at a German bank that analyzed communications patterns, both over email and face-to-face. The resulting maps were very different, and provided a means to view how information flows within an organization.

Pentland emphasized that neither alone – not email nor face-to-face communications – was key, but that the combination of the two helped provide an understanding of the most effective modes of communication. This work has allowed an analysis of decision making, of who is overworked, of the quality of group interaction, etc. 

Admitting that this can seem like Big Brother, Pentland said there is value in creating these communication tracking tools such as proximity badges that can result in communication patterns.

Malone likened Pentland's research to Antony van Leeuwenhoek and the microscope: the microscope allowed van Leeuwenhoek to observe things such as bacteria and other organisms that had always existed but had never been seen in such detail. Pentland is creating an organizational microscope for observing existing communication behavior in ways not possible in the past, Malone suggested.

Karim Lakhani

Karim Lakhani next described how he came to be involved with collective intelligence when trying to sell software to a company whose employees claimed to have created a similar system themselves. Given the complexity of the problems they were trying to address, Lakhani couldn't accept this explanation. When he looked at what the company had done, however, he saw they were years ahead of others. They had accomplished this by tapping into the open-source software community.

Lakhani characterized the open-source model, which he also saw in action when he was a student at MIT [he earned a Ph.D. in management from MIT in 2006], as a prototypical example of collective intelligence.  Some people simply believe in the open-source model and want to support it; others are pragmatists who are trying to solve a specific problem. The fact of the matter is that the community doesn't care about motivation as long as the work gets done.

For Lakhani, the open-source community provides an inspired example of collective intelligence; but he sees others. Innocentive, for instance, takes scientific problems beyond the bounds of an organization to tap into the collective intelligence. Often, people are able to provide solutions that are outside of their domain. One of the hopes of collective intelligence is that it is able to aggregate the pockets of “sticky” intelligence that exist around the world.

Another example he provided was Threadless, a t-shirt design company. Its designs are user submitted and user judged. User demand for specific shirts is also tracked to determine how many of each design is actually produced. This model – though small and specialized – shows how an organization can be redefined and how much work can be done by the community.

In terms of measuring collective intelligence, Malone pointed out that we've been measuring human intelligence for more than a century and as a result have a precise definition of intelligence. According to the psychometric definition, how well one does at an intellectual task is a good predictor of how well one will do on other types of tasks; and there are all sorts of statistically significant relationships and correlations. 

The question is can the same thing be true for groups of humans or humans and computers? Will a group that does well on some tasks do well on others? Malone is especially interested in what causes difference in intelligence between groups and in finding ways to improve the collective intelligence capabilities of groups in general. 

David Thorburn raised the issue of monitoring.  Some of the uses of so-called collective intelligence mentioned by the panelists might be more accurately described as tool of surveillance.  He asked the panelists to speak to the limitations or dangers of collective intelligence.

Regarding privacy, Pentland pointed out that like it or not, we are constantly being monitored or monitoring ourselves (he pointed to cell phones as one means of this happening). The real question is determining the balance between privacy and advantage: how much information do we need to give up for what level of benefit.

Lakhani said that one of the biggest issues facing widespread use of collective intelligence is that managers don't want to use it because results can be contradictory to the role of the manager. This is often an organizational rather than a technical limit and at this point there are no courses on community management so there are few mechanisms for addressing this yet.

Lakhani also pointed to legal and technical issues as potential limitations of collective intelligence. From a legal perspective, views on intellectual property are a major question mark. How will profits be shared the profits from that which is created by a community? And on technology, not everything can be modularized and distributed. It works well in software, but how would it work in something like drug discovery?

Thorburn asked that we consider the limitations of a marketing model in this discussion. What about uses of collective intelligence not based on profit and loss?

Malone cited the use of collective intelligence to monitor and deal with climate change. He mentioned a project using technology to allow people to propose and analyze plans for addressing climate change. It will give people the ability to access, view and analyze massive computer climate simulations.

Lakhani mentioned the Web site Open Congress as enabling citizens to observe and comment on what the Congress is doing. He also discussed the rise of creative commons and people’s willingness to allow their content to be remixed to create new content. 

Pentland suggested collective intelligence as a tool for detecting societal discord and mentioned patterns of cell phone usage in the U.K. and the correlation of that data with social integration. 

Discussion

QUESTION: To what degree does the measurement of interaction change the nature of interaction?

MALONE: The technology certainly changes what happens – an excellent point. We need to use the technology in ways that work and don't disrupt information flow among people, the thing we're measuring.

PENTLAND: The fact is that this type of thing [measurement and observation] is happening and we need to have a way to judge the good from the bad and put it to work. 

QUESTION: How do you train or teach people to become citizens who work together more effectively?

PENTLAND: For the last few centuries we've bought into the idea of individual minds and individual control – but groups and community effect us far more than we'd like to admit. This hasn't been studied.

MALONE: Chaos often deals with emergent behavior which eventually forms into coherent behavior. Collective intelligence is an example of this process.

QUESTION: What of the role of accountability in a social structure? Without accountability, how can you prevent mass stupidity?

LAKHANI: While there are concerns with the lack of accountability there are also examples of people being called to account. The theft of the Half Life game code is an example in which the community helped address the theft.

MALONE: The common response is that if there's a problem, the best way to solve it is to put someone in charge. This can work; but there are limits to this approach to accountability. Good things can happen without anyone being in control or accountable. This is the case with Wikipedia and with free markets around the world. 

Karim Lakhani, Alex Pentland, Thomas Malone

PENTLAND: Collective recognition is an alternative to centralization – not everything in one place but localized, rather than centralized, awareness.

LAKHANI: The tendency to centralize is so grounded that it's hard to think about decentralizing. It's not common sense to decentralize. It will take some time for people to understand that it works to be decentralized.

QUESTION: What is the impact of collective intelligence on individual intelligence? Are we getting dumber as we need to retain less?

MALONE: Most people wouldn’t define intelligence by the number of facts you have – the combination of you and Google are more intelligent than either one alone. We have a number of mechanical or digital prosthetics that work well. 

PENTLAND: The question demonstrates the brainwashing we've had about intelligence. We don't need the stuff in our heads – it's our ability to know and find the people with the information we need.

MALONE: Most of what I know is in the heads of my friends.

QUESTION: There are people with creative visions who feel themselves at odds with society in general – artists, innovators, etc. How do they fare within the collective intelligence framework?

MALONE: Some people wonder, can a group ever write a great novel? Literature is based on integration and reflection. Myths and legends are examples of collaborations – the Bible, too. Can there be forms that are based on collective contributions that we can't yet imagine?

PENTLAND: In some ways, art is a collective act based on previous works and the feedback of a community; science is also a collective one – with many contributors.

LAKHANI: If you look at art, people were often working within a group, sharing ideas and style and working together. This has always been in small groups – but could it scale? Rarely do artists emerge out of nowhere; they emerge from groups and collaborations.

MALONE: Chaos often deals with emergent behavior which eventually forms into coherent behavior. Collective intelligence is an example of this process.

QUESTION: What of the role of accountability in a social structure? Without accountability, how can you prevent mass stupidity?

LAKHANI: While there are concerns with the lack of accountability there are also examples of people being called to account. The theft of the Half Life game code is an example in which the community helped address the theft.

MALONE: The common response is that if there's a problem, the best way to solve it is to put someone in charge. This can work; but there are limits to this approach to accountability. Good things can happen without anyone being in control or accountable. This is the case with Wikipedia and with free markets around the world. 

PENTLAND: Collective recognition is an alternative to centralization – not everything in one place but localized, rather than centralized, awareness.

LAKHANI: The tendency to centralize is so grounded that it's hard to think about decentralizing. It's not common sense to decentralize. It will take some time for people to understand that it works to be decentralized.

QUESTION: What is the impact of collective intelligence on individual intelligence? Are we getting dumber as we need to retain less?

MALONE: Most people wouldn’t define intelligence by the number of facts you have – the combination of you and Google are more intelligent than either one alone. We have a number of mechanical or digital prosthetics that work well. 

PENTLAND: The question demonstrates the brainwashing we've had about intelligence. We don't need the stuff in our heads – it's our ability to know and find the people with the information we need.

MALONE: Most of what I know is in the heads of my friends.

QUESTION: There are people with creative visions who feel themselves at odds with society in general – artists, innovators, etc. How do they fare within the collective intelligence framework?

MALONE: Some people wonder, can a group ever write a great novel? Literature is based on integration and reflection. Myths and legends are examples of collaborations – the Bible, too. Can there be forms that are based on collective contributions that we can't yet imagine?

PENTLAND: In some ways, art is a collective act based on previous works and the feedback of a community; science is also a collective one – with many contributors.

LAKHANI: If you look at art, people were often working within a group, sharing ideas and style and working together. This has always been in small groups – but could it scale? Rarely do artists emerge out of nowhere; they emerge from groups and collaborations.
                                                                                              
Audiocast

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Podcast

A podcast of Collective Intelligence is now available from Comparative Media Studies.

Webcast

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