The emerging science of 'collective intelligence' — and the rise of the global brain

Over at the Edge there's a fascinating article by Thomas W. Malone about the work he and others are doing to understand the rise of collective human intelligence — an emergent phenomenon that's being primarily driven by our information technologies. We may be on an evolutionary trajectory, he argues, that could someday give rise to the global brain. And amazingly, he's developing an entirely new scientific discipline to back his case.

Malone, who is the Director at MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence, studies the way people and computers can be connected so that — collectively — they can act more intelligently than any single person, group, or computer.

The emerging science of 'collective intelligence' — and the rise of the global brainS

And in fact, Malone is even mapping what he calls the "genomes of collective intelligence," a list of convergent examples and design patterns of this phenomenon — things that are assisted by Google, Wikipedia, InnoCentive, (the community that developed the Linux open source operating system), and others. He claims to have identified about 19 of these collective intelligence design patterns — or genes — theat occur over and over in different examples. He writes:

For instance, the community of people that developed the Linux open source operating system embodies what we call the "crowd" gene, because anyone who wants to can contribute new modules for the Linux operating system. But that community also embodies what we call the "hierarchy" gene, because Linus Torvalds and a few of his friends and lieutenants decide-essentially hierarchically-which of the modules that people send in will actually be included in the new versions of the system. So that's the genomes of collective intelligence project.

Among the other things Malone is working on, he's trying to understand how our whole society is evolving in a way that makes us more intelligent. "It's becoming increasingly useful to think of all the people and computers on the planet as a kind of global brain," he writes. Moreover, "our future as a species may depend on our ability to use our global collective intelligence to make choices that are not just smart, but also wise." He continues:

What's the science here? In a sense, we're trying to understand scientifically how groups of humans work together now using the means we have and have had for connecting humans to each other, face to face communication, telephone, Internet, et cetera. More importantly, perhaps, we're also trying to understand the science behind the deeper phenomena of humans working together or humans and computers working together in ways that will help us understand how to create new kinds of human or human and computer cooperatives or collective intelligences. So in that sense, the boundary between science and engineering begins to blur.

Science is about understanding what is, engineering is about how to create what you want to be. But they're clearly related to each other. Understanding better how the world works helps you shape the world in ways you want it to be, and often trying to shape the world in ways you want helps you understand fundamental scientific questions about how the world is in ways that you might never have thought of asking before. Another way of thinking about the question of what's the science here is to relate what we're doing in collective intelligence.

We just had the first academic conference on collective intelligence in April of 2012 held at MIT. I was one of the two co-organizers. We had a number of very interesting speakers and people there, and many people said it was one of the best conferences they'd ever been to. There's a sense that there is a field catalyzing here, a field congealing here.

Malone's essay is a long read, but well worth it — including his insights into ant intelligence and the idea that we should start to measure not the relative intelligence of individuals in a species, but rather the overall intelligence of their emergent group behavior.

Image: Facebook. Other image: Edge