Collective intelligence pioneer hailed

Concept coming to fruition in search engines; proponent also created the computer mouse

In a tribute to computer industry pioneer Doug Engelbart, dignitaries from IT and academic realms espoused the concept of "collective intelligence" at a technology event Monday, emphasizing developments such as search engines that promote the idea.

Entitled "Program for the Future," the conference held Monday at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., focused on Engelbart's quest to improve collective intelligence since the 1960s. Engelbart also is known as the inventor of the computer mouse. Interviewed at the event, Engelbart cited intelligent social groups dealing with increasing complexities as a goal of collective intelligence.

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Lauding Engelbart, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak cited him as an inspiration in the development of Apple's Lisa and Macintosh systems. "Those were really based on the ideas we got with the mouse and Douglas Engelbart," Wozniak said. 

Collective intelligence, said Thomas Malone, director for the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT, involves groups of individuals doing things collectively in ways that seem intelligent. "By this broad definition, we have [had] collective intelligence at least as long as we've had humans," Malone said.

But he cautioned, "I think it's certainly possible to have collective stupidity just as much as it’s possible to have collective intelligence."

Engelbart can be thanked for ideas behind Google, said Peter Norvig, director of research at the company. Vendors such as Yahoo, Netscape, eBay, and Amazon all are built on the idea of collective intelligence, Norvig said. The value of a company is not just in the paid employees but the value of everybody, he said. Norvig added that "everyone who is authoring a Web page is making Google better."

The same kudos applies to anyone making a video for YouTube, he said.

Google represents a new kind of intelligence, with millions of people all over the world creating Web pages and linking them to each other, Malone said. Google technology harvests knowledge, he stressed. "That's a kind of intelligence that never existed on our planet before," said Malone.

Wikipedia, for its part, enables thousands of people to create a high-quality intellectual product for free with almost no centralized control, said Malone. He also cited YouTube and Digg as new examples of collective intelligence.

"I think these examples are not the end of the story; I think they are the beginning," Malone said. He cited as an example an MIT effort called "Climate Collaboratorium," which endeavors to use collective intelligence to address the issue of climate change.

 "What we hope and what we believe is that it should be possible to create an online forum in which we can collectively solve this problem much better than what we could do otherwise," Malone said.

(Engelbart's work was cited in a column in InfoWorld in 2006.)

But another speaker, Paul Resnick, a professor at the University of Michigan, cautioned that collective intelligence can be distorted via manipulation. He cited Google searches on the phrase "miserable failure" that once turned up entries on President George W. Bush. This activity then prompted Republican proponents to spin searches on the same phrase so they would turn up the name of President Jimmy Carter, Resnick said.

Google then changed its algorithms in response to this activity, Resnick said. He advised establishing reputations and transferable reputations, in which persons must establish credibility on a topic before their searches are factored into deliveries of search results. An algorithm would be used to build up a reputation.

The issue, though, is that a person may establish a reputation in one area but not another, or that credibility in one area does not necessarily mean credibility in other topics, he said.

Wozniak in his brief remarks also commented on the digital age.

"We're in a digital age now and what does digital mean? It means everything is a number," Wozniak said. But the question is whether nature is analog and man digital, he said.

Computers, though, have made people more productive, Wozniak said. Still, the computer needs the human intellect, said Wozniak. "Definitely, the computer is a tool," Wozniak said.

As part of its conference, The Tech Museum launched a global competition for new tools to improve collective intelligence. Submissions may come from any field, including politics, the arts, economics, medicine, and philanthropy.

Entries can be made until November 2009, with winners selected the following month.  Winning tools will be made into exhibits at the museum. Winners receive cash prizes of as much as $5,000.

The conference moves to Stanford University on Tuesday.