Collective Intelligence: A Dispatch from The Nantucket Project

The most basic definition of collective intelligence is to get group of people to do something collectively that seems intelligent. A profound definition is the creation a global brain. 

What is the purpose of 350 people gathering for a weekend-long conference on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts?


The most simple, and humble answer is to get this group of people to do something collectively that seems intelligent. That definition of collective intelligence comes from Tom Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence where he uses teams to tackle global problems like climate change.

Collective Intelligence was the theme of this year's Nantucket Project, an event full of big ideas and bold-faced names that was held from October 5 to October 8th on Nantucket. In the coming weeks, Big Think -- co-partners of the event -- will be releasing video highlights on this blog. The slideshow below offers a snapshot of what's to come -- Peter Thiel and Vivek Wadwa butting heads on education and innovation; top financial thinkers Larry Summers, Eddie Lampert, Bob Diamond and David Rubenstein debating the notion of "radical transparency"; Dambisa MoyoJohn Kerry, Grover Norquist, Chris Matthews, David Gergen, Elizabeth Stark and Larry Lessig presenting solutions to political issues and much, much more.

Here are some of the many highlights from the 2012 Nantucket Project:

All photos courtesy of Meghan Brosnan.

What's the Big Idea?

Tom Malone says it's not good enough to simply put a group of smart people together. Let's say one person dominates the conversation. The group will not be exercising collective intelligence. Let's say there is a high number of women in the group. Then we're getting somewhere. According to Malone's findings, groups do well when they are composed of people who are socially perceptive.

Of course, collective intelligence has existed for a long time. Organizational units such as families, companies, countries and armies are all examples of groups of people working together in ways that seem intelligent, says Malone. And yet, in the last few years we've seen some new kinds of collective intelligence enabled by the Internet. For this reason, Malone's basic research question for every project at MIT is this:

Malone believes that as our world becomes more closely connected it will become "more and more useful to view all of the people and computers on our planet as a single global brain." Perhaps our success as a species depends on how well we're able to use our global collective intelligence "to make choices that are not just smart but also wise."

What's the Significance?

While the Internet has exponentially increased the rate of knowledge transfer and lowered traditional barriers to participation, there are both positive and negative outcomes to this. Let's start with examples that suggest technological optimism. 

  • Thousands of volunteers have collectively produced Wikipedia, an intellectual product with over 1.5 billion words, many times more than the largest traditional encyclopedia, Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • The U.S. Navy's Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) is designed to "crowdsource ideas and strategies that may provide insight to some of the Navy's toughest problems." The most recent wargame sought solutions to best meet future energy demands.
  • By feeding 630,000 New York City residents' 4.4 million tweets into an algorithm, researchers at the University of Rochester were able to predict when healthy people would fall ill with about 90 percent accuracy out to eight days in the future.
  • A group in California launched the world’s first virtual constitutional convention, reThinkCali.com, a web-based effort to solve California's governance problems by providing tools and incentives to educate, engage, and submit proposed solutions.
  • Originally intended for sex offenders, government DNA databases have been extended to include almost any criminal offender. Beyond helping governments solve crime, DNA databases can help researchers cure diseases.
  • These are a few examples that represent Internet-enabled Collective Intelligence, which is still in its infancy. And yet, many of these advances are offset by externalities or counter-trends that represent threats to progress. A few examples are:

  • As we rely on the Internet for everything, we run the risk of developing a “hive mind”: When we’re faced with hard questions, we don’t search our minds—we first think of the Web.
  • As search engines become better at anticipating our desires, and we’re more reliant on social networks for news and information, we develop a “filter bubble” that can block out what is important. Based on our patterns of behavior, search engines can play to our biases, not our curiosity.
  • When does the wisdom of crowds give way to the meanness of mobs? The site Rotten Tomatoes took the unprecedented step of turning off commenting for The Dark Knight Rises when readers issued death threats to journalists who gave the movie bad reviews of a film they hadn’t even watched. This is just one particularly ugly example of how the Internet has fostering “pack behavior.”
  • Critics like Jaron Lanier have argued the economic structure of Web 2.0 is based on inequality, whereby “digital peasants” are being forced to provide free material to a few “lords of the clouds.”
  • Stay tuned to this blog for a thorough and provocative discussion of these issues and many others.

    All photos courtesy of Meghan Brosnan.

    Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter: @danielhonan

    To learn more about The Nantucket Project and how to attend the 2013 event visit nantucketproject.com.

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