“Collective intelligence can be used to resolve the problems we’ll face in the decades to come, such as climate change, migration and global health,” confirms Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, the largest British foundation for social and technological innovation. Last October Nesta opened an office in Turin, Italy, its first outside the UK. Every individual, organisation or group has an advantage to gain from a relationship with a bigger mind, making use of the intellectual power of other people and other machines - this is the central theory of Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World (Princeton University Press, RRP: £24.00, 280 pages). It is the latest book from Mulgan, one of the world’s most prominent experts in social innovation. This ‘Bigger Mind’, which makes use of the intellectual power of other people and other machines working together therefore has the potential to resolve the biggest challenges we face in today’s world. Mulgan, visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Ash Center, uses revolutionary successes (from Google Maps to Dove satellites and extraordinary new applications in medicine) and astounding failures (such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London or the financial crisis a decade ago), to explain how this collaborative effort between humans and technology works.
Migration, global health, climate change? The solution is collective intelligence.
These are concrete examples of how actions and thoughts shared on a huge scale do not always lead to decisions made with full knowledge of the facts - especially when it comes to complex or highly specialist fields. Coordination tools that can bring individual efforts together into a united, organic unit are therefore required for us to be able to fully exploit the potential of virtual interconnectedness: in other words, turning individuals’ minds into a collective intelligence. Drawing from various disciplines, such as philosophy, biology, economics, psychology and IT, Big Mind shows how this collective intelligence - if orchestrated properly - can drive companies, governments, universities and societies to make the most of the human brain and of digital technologies. In what way? Organisations “seek resources from around them that they aren’t already using - the knowledge and intuitions of their own employees, clients and contractors - and they find ways to use them,” explains Mulgan. “Then, they learn how best to organise that intelligence: analysis, prediction, memory, creativity and especially judgement and wisdom. And they learn what we call learning the ‘three loops’, which include the generation of new categories and creating new ways of thinking. This absolutely improves their ability to identify and to resolve problems.” The book takes the reader on a journey of discovery through the evolution of the collective intelligence, examining its limits and its potential. We met Geoff Mulgan in Milan, at the presentation of Big Mind.
What exactly is collective intelligence?
The basic concept upon which the idea is based is that the wisdom of a group of people can go way beyond that of an individual. I am interested in the ways in which we organise thought on a large scale, involving lots of people and often lots of machines. It will therefore be useful in devising many types of hybrid intelligences, combinations of people, objects and tools. The practical examples of collective intelligence in fact largely revolve around combining humans and machines, companies and networks. These combinations allow us to think in radical new ways to resolve complex problems, identifying obstacles more quickly and pooling resources in ways never seen before. My objective is to see how we can use these new types of collective intelligence to resolve the big problems of our time, such as climate change, disease and migration.
Successful examples of collective intelligence are generally hybrids, assemblies made up of several different elements. Can you give us some examples?
Google Maps, the result of human brains and computers working together. It is essentially an assembly of intelligences, of many elements from various organisations. Together they create something truly useful and help the world think in a more intelligent way. Duolingo is an example of hybridisation in the field of language-learning. This online system uses thousands of volunteers in a very intelligent way to create new linguistic matches. It is a private company but one that has a collective intelligence. Some of the most intriguing hybrid assemblies use platforms to aggregate and orchestrate brilliance on an increasingly vast scale. There are initiatives such as Wikipedia and Wikihouse. The latter shares elements of design for anyone to design their own house. They can download open source designs and, in exchange, put their own adaptations and ideas back into the commons once the house is built. Other ambitious projects are being developed in medicine. MetaSub maps the global urban microbial genome so as to better understand patterns of antimicrobial resistance. Another good example is AIME, a global network using artificial intelligence to track and predict outbreaks of Zika and dengue, combining sophisticated observation, computing power and clever behavioural incentives. There are other examples of assemblies in the environmental field, such as the Planetary Skin programme set up by NASA and Cisco. It is a global non-proﬁt research and development organisation for surveying the state of the world’s ecological systems to help people prepare better for extreme weather events or problems caused by shortages of water, energy and food.
In your opinion, what is the big paradox in 2018?
We are being engulfed by a wave of extraordinary smart technology, such as IBM‘s Watson, Google’s DeepMind, Amazon, driverless cars, smartphones... We have increasingly smart machines and yet often we are surrounded by collective stupidity. In a strange paradox, it is often the case that intelligent people and sophisticated technologies are employed within systems that act much more stupidly than those people and machines. We see this collective stupidity in our governments, sometimes we see it in our markets. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of ‘guided missiles but misguided men’ and it is not a rare occurrence that institutions and organisations packed with individual intelligence display collective stupidity or distorted worldviews, such as investment banks that lose billions and intelligence agencies that misjudge geopolitical events.
What are the biggest enemies that collective intelligence faces?
The increase of fake news, trolls, misinformation, cyber attacks, spam, prejudice and stereotypes. Collective intelligence has a huge number of enemies and fighting against them is important. I believe that in the years to come, a lot of time will be spent on building new systems to fight off these enemies, creating new institutions that will reinforce the truth, strengthen learning and protect the space in which open thinking, honesty and intelligence can flourish.
What is the book’s aim?
To create a movement, a new way of seeing things, a new discipline, profession, a new practice within our institutions that aims to instil intelligence in our system and ensure that we can resolve the big issues of our time.