August 15, 2007

Kevin Kelly@Pop!Tech: Where does collective intelligence begin?

  Poptech 2006 
  Originally uploaded by poptech2006

Kevin Kelly gives some astounding insights on how the web resembles the human brain, in his Pop!Tech 2006 performance.

The web is currently being clicked on
100 billion times per day, with over one trillion links. This is the same number as there are synapses in the human brain. Likewise, one quintillion transistors make the web go around, which is about the same as the number of neurons in the human brain. There are 20 petahertz synapse firings on the web and 20 exabytes of memory - the parameters of the web as a whole entity are very similar to the human brain. One problem: our brains are not doubling in size every 18 months.

What does this mean for us?
It means that the collective intelligence gathered on the web, especially right now as its collective power bypasses the power of the individual's mind, means that no one body is truly more powerful than everybody. It means that we can say with increasing confidence that technology has the potential to define us and our culture, rather than the other way around.

Kelly makes a point that SecondLife and The Sims, for example, could or should have an equal status as any other thing that we have created in the past, greater, perhaps, than any other piece of art.

Does collective intelligence have a starting point?
I'm going to attempt to beg to differ on one account, just to see where the argument might take us.

To comfortably say that what we have produced collectively is better than what one (genius) artist or creator has made then the whole power of the web must be mobilised, every link and synapses would have to be used in one direction for one creation, to truly use more "brain power" than the one genius individual human mind that created the object which is respected by the relative masses.

It's easy, perhaps, to see the collective superiority of wikipedia over one individual's knowledge, but in the realm of creativity we are looking at things far more subjectively. Everyone has an inkling of creativity in them, so the differentiating factor, as Stephen Heppell commented last month, is ingenuity. My definition of ingenuity is completely different from the next person's. My definition of optimum collective output might only be that from 100 really ingenious creatives (as defined by my criterion) rather than from one million randomly average creatives on the web.

So we reach a key question in trying to work out where the collective intelligence boon of the web begins: how do we know the tipping point where collective creativity and collective pulling of knowledge is greater than the specialisation and ingenuity of one person or a smaller number of these 'ingenious individuals'?


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There may be no understandable answer to your question. I'm not sure that individuals can see as clearly the full range of implications of collective intelligence as they can the work of one or more ingenious individuals. Take the growth of a city over time into consideration.

No one person had a vision for the city where I live. In fact, much of the early effort that shaped its character was the result of specific local necessity and not work committed in tandem. As a result, we have streets that follow a river in one area, while they are east/west and north/south in others. Most individuals don't realize the difference in street directions nor do they know how that impacts the character of the city itself, but it clearly defines 'downtown'.

Just as I'm mostly aware of my own neighborhood and only marginally connected to the vast majority of events of the city around me, the collective impact of dozens of neighborhoods and their citizens is undeniable but complicated and difficult to assess. It isn't necessary for individual components of large collective systems to work toward the same goal in order to have significant outcomes. It is, however, much harder for those components to understand or impact those outcomes.

It may be informative to add Malcolm Gladwell's presentation about the 'one genius' vs 'many smart guys' from the New Yorker Magazine's 'Genius: 2012' conference to the discussion.

As for the suggestion of Second Life or the Sims as a great piece of art, I can only point to early cave paintings as the closest equivalent in terms of historical significance. Over time, these specific digital artifacts will be seen as very primitive efforts and not the pinnacle of a reformation.

Orson Scott Card writes in his sci-fi series about Ender Wiggen a virtual being that manifest within the knowledge networks of humankind. This being, affectionately named Jane, speaks to select characters through a "Jewel" transplant into the ear. Jane is the collective collected knowledge of humankind. Jane appears in Card's second novel in the series, _Speaker for the Dead_ and was published in 1986.

Even in 1986, collective intelligence through electronic networks wasn't a new idea, but Jane is a pretty good analogy to what could become of the internet in the next few decades. We will want access to our information without delay. The characters in Card's novels "subvocalize" questions to Jane, then only they hear Jane's response.

Regardless of this vast amount of knowledge, there is no creativity. And human problems are still best solved by individual humans that can decipher the value of emotions and relationships in complex problem solving.

Sci-fi aside, I do see collective IQ, but emotional intelligence and creativity will still be in the hands of the finite beings. An idea is fleeting, whether it be art or a solution. And no amount of collective knowledge may be able to recreate it.

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