Orr on Engineering: Collective IQ: Digital technology Could Upgrade Our Smarts

Jan. 9, 2009
Engelbart is known as the inventor of the computer mouse, but, as he says, that innovation was incidental to a much larger vision of collective intelligence

Together with Hiroshi Ishii of MIT’s Media Lab, I helped organize the recent Program for the Future (programforthefuture.org), a conference to honor Doug Engelbart on the 40th anniversary of “The Mother of All Demos” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mother_of_All_Demos). About 120 individuals attended and more than 200 others participated via the Program’s Second Life presence. There was also a substantial stream of Twitter messages from the event.

Engelbart is known as the inventor of the computer mouse, but, as he says, that innovation was incidental to a much larger vision of collective intelligence.

According to Wikipedia, collective intelligence is a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals. Collective intelligence appears in a wide variety of forms of consensus decision making in bacteria, animals, humans, and computer networks. The study of collective intelligence may properly be considered a subfield of sociology, business, computer science, mass communications, and mass behavior — a field that studies collective behavior from the level of quarks to that of bacterial, plant, animal, and human societies.

Collective intelligence or “collective IQ,” is a point of faith. It isn’t “just” teamwork or collaboration. It is an empowering vision. As Engelbart says in Byte magazine (9/1995), “Many years ago, I dreamed that digital technology could greatly augment our collective human capabilities for dealing with complex, urgent problems. Computers, high-speed communications, displays, interfaces — it’s as if suddenly, in an evolutionary sense, we’re getting a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms...I’ve since struggled with the realization that the sooner the world gets serious about pursuing the possibilities, the greater the chance we can reduce the hazards facing this careening vessel carrying us along.”

The conference includes a design contest with the challenge to find new ideas that help people work better and smarter together in some important area. The idea is to develop a practical method, tool, or technology that connects people so they collectively act more intelligently. The contest covers all areas of human endeavor — from technical domains such as science, computing, and engineering to art, law, health, business, economics, education, government, and philanthropy. Winning entries will be displayed in participating museums.

At the recent event, many speakers cited Engelbart’s vision and credited him with much of what is celebrated in today’s technology. Founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence Thomas Malone gave some examples of collective intelligence. Associate director of the MIT Media Lab Hiroshi Ishii told how Engelbart’s inspiration motivated his entire career. Peter Norvig of Google and Steve Wozniak praised Engelbart’s foresight and commented that we have not yet begun to fully take advantage of collective IQ. The energy among attendees was unmistakable and infectious. When program organizers Sam Hahn and Mei Lin Fung gave a brief wrap-up, they emphasized the urgent need the world has for collective intelligence to solve such pressing problems as the economy and climate change.

Several attendees at the recent conference had been present at the 1968 event where Engelbart introduced the computer mouse, interactive text, video conferencing, teleconferencing, e-mail, and hypertext. (Wikipedia) — Joel Orr

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary at Cyon Research Corp. in Bethesda, Md. If you’d like to join this community or have a question or a comment, e-mail Joel at [email protected]

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