Collective Intelligence

10 Dec

Thomas Malone runs a fascinating group called the MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence. He is working “to understand the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity”.

(He has a good grounding having studied maths, computer science, economic systems and cognitive psychology.)

Here are the key points from an interview he recently gave about his work.

He describes the internet as a form of collective intelligence drawing particular attention to Linux and Wikipedia. He thinks “they’re just barely the beginning of the story. We’re likely to see lots more examples of Internet-enabled collective intelligence – and other kinds of collective intelligence as well – over the coming decades”.

As such he says his group is trying to find out how “people and computers can be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any person, group or computer has ever done before”. He says that “if you take that question seriously, the answers you get are often very different from the kinds of organizations and groups we know today”.

A major key to understanding this is finding a measure of collective intelligence using “a single statistical factor that predicts how well a given group will do on a very wide range of different tasks”.

Interestingly “the average and the maximum intelligence of the individual group members was correlated, but only moderately correlated, with the collective intelligence of the group as a whole”.

He found that there were two factors that had the most influence on his measure of group intelligence:

The first was the average social perceptiveness of the group members. We measured social perceptiveness in this case using a test developed essentially to measure autism. It’s called the “Reading the Mind and the Eyes Test”. It works by letting people look at pictures of other people’s eyes and try to guess what emotions those people are feeling. People who are good at that work well in groups. When you have a group with a bunch of people like that, the group as a whole is more intelligent.

The second factor we found was the evenness of conversational turn taking. In other words, groups where one person dominated the conversation were, on average, less intelligent than groups where the speaking was more evenly distributed among the different group members.

I find this area of discussion particularly interesting working, as I do, on large IT projects. Their success is significantly influenced by the way the people work together given the processes and personalities involved. Also as the problem domains of human endeavour become ever more complex, it’s less easy for individuals to solve problems, and it’s group efforts that are required – the Large Hadron Collider is a great example.

It’s interesting to contrast his work with the principles in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom Of Crowds which talks about bringing the knowledge of individuals to bear on a problem. He claims that wise decisions are made by taking the average of the decisions of a group of individuals providing that three conditions hold: diversity of experience among the individuals, decentralisation of knowledge and independence of decision-making across the group.

In this fun article Tom Stafford writes that we rely more on our environment for intelligence than we like to think. Whether it’s Google and Wikipedia or people and our surroundings. He describes how we take so many cognitive short cuts that we actually don’t bother remembering many things, for example, if the people around us are likely to remember them for us. He says “our minds are made up just as much by the people and tools around us as they are by the brain cells inside our skull“.

Malone suggests: “You might well argue that human intelligence has all along been primarily a collective phenomenon rather than an individual one. Most of the things we think of as human intelligence really arise in the context of our interactions with other human beings. We learn languages. We learn to communicate. Most of our intellectual achievements as humans really result not just from a single person working all alone by themselves, but from interactions of an individual with a culture, with a body of knowledge, with a whole community and network of other humans.

I think and I hope that this approach to thinking about collective intelligence can help us to understand not only what it means to be individual humans, but what it means for us as humans to be part of some broader collectively intelligent entity.


One Response to “Collective Intelligence”


  1. Beware Crowds – Logical Fallacy #58 | unfebuckinglievable - March 8, 2013

    […] as a species, is built on what our peers and predecessors have learnt – what some call our collective intelligence. However we need to be discerning in what we […]

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