A Conversation with Thomas W. Malone, Edge.org
Pretty much everything I’m doing now falls under the broad umbrella that I’d call collective intelligence. What does collective intelligence mean? It’s important to realize that intelligence is not just something that happens inside individual brains. It also arises with groups of individuals. In fact, I’d define collective intelligence as groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent. By that definition, of course, collective intelligence has been around for a very long time. Families, companies, countries, and armies: those are all examples of groups of people working together in ways that at least sometimes seem intelligent.
It’s also possible for groups of people to work together in ways that seem pretty stupid, and I think collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence. Part of what I want to understand and part of what the people I’m working with want to understand is what are the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity. But in whatever form, either intelligence or stupidity, this collective behavior has existed for a long time.
What’s new, though, is a new kind of collective intelligence enabled by the Internet. Think of Google, for instance, where millions of people all over the world create web pages, and link those web pages to each other. Then all that knowledge is harvested by the Google technology so that when you type a question in the Google search bar the answers you get often seem amazingly intelligent, at least by some definition of the word “intelligence.”
Or think of Wikipedia, where thousands of people all over the world have collectively created a very large and amazingly high quality intellectual product with almost no centralized control. And by the way, without even being paid. I think these examples of things like Google and Wikipedia are not the end of the story. I think 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.
If we want to predict what’s going to happen, especially if we want to be able to take advantage of what’s going to happen, we need to understand those possibilities at a much deeper level than we do so far. That’s really our goal in the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which I direct. In fact, one way we frame our core research question there 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? If you take that question seriously, the answers you get are often very different from the kinds of organizations and groups we know today.
We do take the question seriously, and we are doing a bunch of things related to that question. The first is just trying to map the different kinds of collective intelligence, the new kinds of collective intelligence that are happening all around us in the world today. One of the projects we’ve done we call “mapping the genomes of collective intelligence”. We’ve collected over 200 examples of interesting cases of collective intelligence … things like Google, Wikipedia, InnoCentive, the community that developed the Linux open source operating system, et cetera.
Then we looked for the design patterns that come up over and over in those different examples. Using the biological analogy, we call these design patterns “genes,” but if you don’t like the analogy or the metaphor, you can just use the word “design patterns.” We’ve identified so far about 19 of these design patterns—or genes—that occur over and over in these different examples.
In fact, even though there are other meanings of the word intelligence in English, a very important element or nuance of the word “intelligence” in English is just that it’s somebody who’s good at a lot of mental things, somebody who is good at learning quickly, at adapting to new situations, at doing a bunch of things.
The most intelligent person is not the one who’s best at doing any specific task, but it’s the one who’s best at picking up new things quickly. That’s essentially the definition we used for defining intelligence at the level of groups as well. We said that a group is intelligent if it’s able to perform well on a wide range of different tasks. It was actually performance that we were looking at.