Review: Collective intelligence is cause for optimism in Big Mind

As technology advances at a near exponential rate, we tend to take for granted that we hold in the very palms of our hands technology more powerful than that of the first space shuttles that took man to the moon — millions of times more powerful, to be precise.

With this technology, we can communicate with anyone on the globe within seconds, access the totality of information our species has amassed, run sophisticated computer programs and other vitally important features such as the ability to superimpose dog features onto one’s face while taking a selfie.

Feats such as these would have seemed unworldly mere few decades ago.

If a smartphone were presented to even the most skeptical individual from only a few centuries ago, they could only reasonably suspect that it was the product of witchcraft or an artifact possessed by demonic spirits. And could we blame them?

But technology hasn’t only changed the way individuals relate to the world around them — it has also radically changed how individuals connect with one another, and further, how those connections can be organized to form what is known as “collective intelligence.” Geoff Mulgan explores the significance of this latter development in his new book, Big Mind.

In Big Mind, Mulgan takes us through the emergence of collective intelligence and its current applications. The most salient examples are websites such as Wikipedia that profit from the collective input of its thousands of users, which is far more effective than a small number of full-time employees. Other examples are apps such as Waze, which utilizes the data of its users to create up-to-the-minute traffic reports.

Mulgan then argues that collective intelligence can potentially reach much further with its application. He envisions universities, media organizations, governments and other facets of society all benefiting from implementing collective intelligence systems.

He further believes that by combining the mental resources of large numbers of people into a collective force, global problems such as climate change, geopolitical conflict, poverty and public health could be resolved.

While the majority of his proposals seem reasonable, he ventures far past the boundary of hopeful optimism and into the territory of naive idealism when he proposes that collective intelligence could support a revitalization of direct democracy.

He argues that like ancient Athens, technology could offer democracies the opportunity to involve its collective citizenry in everyday decision-making. However, if referendums tell us anything about direct democracy and if recent events in Britain tell us anything about referendums, then we know what a catastrophe this could be — that is, Brexit-like scenarios on a regular basis.

He concludes by speculating about the future of technological progress and the possibility of integrating human and machine intelligence

Currently, the most advanced intelligent systems synthesize human and machine brain-power, such as “cyborg chess players.” And Mulgan sees this technology expanding into other areas as well. Unfortunately, he neglects to discuss the most interesting prospect of brain-computer interface, namely neural implants. While sounding far into the realm of science fiction, neural implants have been a growing area of research and many tech experts believe it to be the future of artificial intelligence.

In the third instalment of the Terminator film series, the two protagonists race to prevent the world’s largest integrated intelligence system, “Skynet,” from coming online. They fail to reach the servers in time — Skynet is then activated, becomes self-aware and proceeds to initiate a nuclear exchange that results in the end of civilization.

If we share in Mulgan’s optimism, however, we can expect a much more profitable and less apocalyptic future for the field of collective intelligence. As technology continues its swift progress and individuals and systems become increasingly integrated, we should take Mulgan’s advice — at least in most respects — and seek to extract every advantage, as society becomes more and more like one big mind.