Collective intelligence, in some form, has been around at least as long as humans have. Families, armies, countries, and companies have all—at least sometimes—acted collectively in ways that seem intelligent.
But in the last few years, a new kind of collective intelligence has begun to emerge: groups of people and computers, connected by the Internet, collectively doing intelligent things. Consider Google, for instance. Its technology harvests knowledge created by millions of people generating and linking web pages and then uses this knowledge to answer queries in ways that often seem remarkably intelligent. Wikipedia, which bills itself as the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” is another example. There thousands of people from around the world have cooperatively created a very large and amazingly high quality intellectual product with almost no centralized control, and almost all as volunteers!
These examples of Internet-enabled collective intelligence are not the end of the story but just the beginning. In order to understand the possibilities and constraints of these new kinds of intelligence, we need a new interdisciplinary field. Forming such a field is one of the goals of the upcoming conference, Collective Intelligence 2012, that’s being hosted at MIT April 18-20. I am co-chairing the event with my colleague, Luis von Ahn, a professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon.
The organizing committee spent some time debating the scope of the conference, and we ended up defining it as behavior that is both collective and intelligent. By collective, we mean groups of individual actors, including, for example, people, computational agents, and organizations. By intelligent, we mean that the collective behavior of the group exhibits characteristics such as perception, learning, judgment, or problem solving.
Some of the topics we will address at the conference include: social computing, which refers to the intersection of social behavior and computers—everything from blogs, email, and social networks, to online auctions and prediction markets; human computation, which is a computer science technique in which some of the calculations and processes are performed by people, not machines; and crowdsourcing, an on- or offline problem-solving process where tasks are farmed out to a network of people.
Collective intelligence (CI) is an emerging interdisciplinary field that overlaps with many other disciplines, including computer science, management, network science, economics, social psychology, sociology, political science, and biology (e.g., social insects). Here at MIT, for instance, the Center for Collective Intelligence is housed within the Sloan School of Management. But it includes people from MIT’s computer science department, its brain and cognitive science department, and the Media Lab.
Our conference will include researchers who are trying to solve deep scientific questions such as: What are the conditions that lead groups to become more collectively intelligent instead of, say, collectively stupid? The answers to these are theoretical questions can have huge, practical implications. They can, for instance, help companies become more productive and help societies solve their problems more effectively.
These have been our goals in the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence since its founding just over five years ago, and I hope this conference will help catalyze a much broader community of people working toward these same goals.
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