Promises and Perils: Emerging Forms of Collective Intelligence
By Tse Hao Guang
Whenever humans work in groups, we display collective intelligence (CI) to varying degrees. In this sense, CI has always been with us. Families, companies, countries and the economy are examples of humans working together in CI systems, utilising various tools at our disposal to address problems and accomplish feats that no single person could have alone. In recent years, the coupling of humans and digital networks has created collectives that can coordinate themselves better than ever, with real-world effects. The political mobilisation of millions on social media during the Arab Spring is just one example.
Even newer forms of CI are emerging. New technology enables CI systems to become much more decentralised than before, to incorporate new kinds of data at newly massive scales, and to connect both human and artificial agents in novel ways such as through play. This does not mean traditional CI systems like governments or corporations will disappear, although they will likely have to work with, manage, and be themselves changed by new CI systems. Let’s take a look at three forces driving the evolution of CI systems to catch a glimpse of what the future might hold.
Emerging CI systems are becoming even more decentralised, with concentrations of knowledge and power being dispersed by radical peer-to-peer technologies and movements.
Examples of these include blockchain-enabled Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) that can raise funds and be managed collectively through smart contracts, as well as the rise of additive manufacturing allowing networks of makers and factories equipped with 3D printers to perform some functions of traditional factories. Such flatly-organised CI systems may increase agility and spur innovation on one hand, but cause immense disruption and pose regulatory challenges on the other.
The speed and resilience of maker networks was powerfully proved during the COVID-19 crisis. After being alerted through its networks, an Italian 3D-printing company brought a printer to a local hospital running low on ventilator valves, redesigning and printing them within hours even as the usual supply chains failed to meet emergency needs. In similar vein, a Facebook group called Open Source Covid19 Medical Supplies was set up to facilitate the sharing of 3D printing files for ventilators, respirators, and other related equipment.
On the other hand, traditionally hierarchical CI systems such as governments will find it challenging to understand (let alone communicate with or regulate) DAOs and other networks comprised of numerous collective decision-makers spread across multiple jurisdictions. As more DAOs materialise, they provide people with the opportunity to experience alternative forms of local governance, at a moment where skepticism of globalisation and traditional institutions is high.
More real-world assets are gaining digital properties, becoming increasingly indexable, searchable and traceable, and behaving more like online commodities. Such assets may be physical things, high-touch services and skills, or even human bodies.
As working from home is normalised and telepresence robots proliferate, even services such as driving and babysitting can be performed and monitored remotely. Digital marketplaces for many goods and low-touch services already exist, but imagine a jobs portal where you can source the best remote waiters for your telepresence robot cafe from anywhere in the world, including people who are wheelchair- or bed-bound.
Such remote work technologies promise to enable more groups to enter CI systems such as labour markets. In particular, those with physical disabilities, some blue collar workers or lower-skilled service providers, and those living outside of major world cities may be able to overcome geographical and physical limitations and find new opportunities.
The digitalisation of the body is another important aspect of this driving force, with biometric sources of data rapidly expanding beyond the fingerprint, iris, voice and facial domains to “micro-gestures”, gait and even “body internal” devices such as digital pills swallowed to track health. Biometric data is much more personal and, in many cases, harder to anonymise or disassociate from individuals than other kinds of data.
Therefore, the ethical challenges of collecting and using data will continue to be significant, even as the potential benefits of feeding more and new data to CI systems increase and tantalise decision-makers. Global differences in ethical standards may make technological progress uneven, culminating in a regulatory race to the bottom where the least ethical reap the most rewards.
Abundance changes the way communities and CI systems are formed, leading to new concentrations of knowledge and power. Such groups will run on formerly fringe principles or mechanisms such as gift culture, AI coordination and gamification.
Most groups today are organised around command or exchange relationships, where power is relatively centralised and status is determined by control over scarce resources. In emerging spaces where power is decentralised, and resources such as data are relatively abundant, gift cultures form alongside command and exchange ones. Within such cultures, power and status is determined instead by what you give away.
Traditionally, gift cultures have been observed among people living in mild climates with abundant food. Today, the subcultures of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, hackers, and hardcore gamers exhibit aspects of gift culture. With social media and casual gaming, an abundance of information and sharing platforms familiarises masses of ordinary people with gift culture dynamics.
These masses are growing exponentially. Artificial agents such as AI are being used to connect and mobilise this abundance of human agents. Working together, humans and AI do better than either alone, whether it be diagnosing illnesses, or predicting the future. Putting a machine in the group seems to improve the wisdom of the crowd.
Where there is an abundance of digital communities and platforms, some CI systems recruit users by gamifying coordination. A mobile game utilising 3D navigation, Sea Hero Quest, produced over a century’s worth of data on the impact of dementia on spatial awareness in months with millions of players. However, gamified CI systems may not always be so benign. Conspiracy group QAnon, for example, hooks its members using methods similar to those employed by Alternate Reality Games.
These changes in the way groups of people work together will lead to far-ranging implications. While nascent CI systems can be studied, they might exhibit emergent properties at scale and over time, the effects of which would be difficult to fully imagine.
Mass recruitment into new CI systems may strengthen collectivist tendencies within society, renew a genuine desire for participative governance, and reduce the administrative friction of direct democracy. On the other hand, if many people are involved in multiple, rapidly evolving CI systems, the effect could be disorientation, a more fragmentary sense of self, and even a retreat into gamified fantasy worlds.
At the level of institutions, the most forward-thinking governments and companies may themselves incorporate new CI methods, both to capitalise on opportunities and guard against threats that new CI systems pose. For example, instead of relying on centralised fact-checking to combat fake news, a decentralised, collectively intelligent network comprised of citizens, experts and others might be able to more quickly, effectively and organically restore trust in the media landscape.
While the precise contours of the future are almost by definition uncertain, any future is built together, not alone. Perhaps, then, the project of the future requires our collective intelligence, with its own promises and perils to watch out for.
Tse Hao Guang is Foresight Analyst at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.
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