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Why Augmenting Collective Intelligence is Easier than Augmenting Individual Intelligence

by Michael Nielsen on October 24, 2008

When I first heard about intelligence augmentation, I thought the idea was amazing – you could outsource cognitive tasks to your computer, effectively making you smarter.

At first, it’d be mundane stuff, multiplying numbers on a calculator, things like that. But as computers got more powerful, it’d be possible to outsource progressively more complex and interesting tasks. You’d be getting smarter, along with the progress of technology.

I heard about this in the early 1990s, before the web had taken off. At the time, the way I (and, I suspect, many other people who’d heard of it) looked at intelligence augmentation was primarily as a way of augmenting individual intelligence.

The way things have turned out, though, it seems to be a lot easier to augment collective intelligence than it is to augment individual intelligence. At the least, progress on augmenting collective intelligence has been spectacular over the past 15 years, while progress on augmenting individual intelligence has been slow. If I have to choose between giving up my calculator (or any other individual tool), and giving up Google, the calculator will be in the trash.

Perhaps part of the reason for my mistake was familiarity. For most of us, especially circa 1990, the intelligence of individuals was an everyday concept, but collective intelligence was, and to some extent remains, exotic.

Of course, with hindsight it’s not so strange that augmenting collective intelligence is easier than augmenting individual intelligence.

Collective intelligence requires us to externalize our thoughts, expressing them in symbols, so they can be communicated to others. This has the coincidental effect of making those thoughts (or, at least, their expression) accessible to computers in a way that our internal brain state is not. The more communication is taking place, the more opportunity there is for software to contribute.

Google demonstrates this vividly, extracting valuable information from the links between webpages, information that can then be fed back to make us smarter. I’ve long thought it’d be fun to do a controlled experiment in which two groups of people are given an IQ test, with the only difference between the groups being that one has access to the web, and the other does not.

You may object that I’m using the term “augmentation of collective intelligence” in a funny way. After all, Google is used by just a single person at a time. Of course, I’m using the term broadly, to mean tools for intelligence augmentation that build in an essential way upon collective intelligence. Maybe a more literal description would be “collective augmentation of intelligence”, or something similar. But the argument I’ve made holds equally true also in the narrow sense of literally augmenting collective intelligence, as shown by examples Kasparov versus the World, the Matlab programming competition, open source biology, Linux, and Wikipedia.

One Comment
  1. It’s too bad that a very interesting post like this appears in the last two weeks of the election … when many people will be too distracted to give this topic the attention it deservices.

    Just to remark, readers of Marvin Minsky’s classic AI work Society of Mind will appreciate that “augmenting individual intelligence” is (effectively) identical to “augmenting collective intelligence” … but on the micro-level of individual Minskian agents in the brain, rather than the macro-level of individual citizens in the polity.

    We ought therefore to expect that global increases in humanity’s collective intelligence ought to be paralleled by fairly dramatic global increases in humanity’s individual intelligence … and it is well-documented that such an intelligence increase is in fact taking place (it is called the Flynn Effect).

    It is natural to ask “If everyone is getting smarter, both individually and collectively, then why is the world so troubled?”

    To which one good answer is the counter-question: “How much trouble would the world be in, if the everyone was getting dumber?”

    A tougher question is “If our everyday experiences of self-awareness and free will are just two agents (of many) in the individual mind, what are their cognate agencies in the global polity?”

    This second question suggests itself when we look for questions to which the answer might be “shared synoptic databases, information theory, and system engineering” … these being three seminal resources of our century.

    The above is intended not to suggest good answers, but to suggest interesting questions and lines of thought.

    And … thanks, Michael, for a *great* blog!

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