Good Thinking

Initiatives to harness the power of collective intelligence

Initiatives to harness the power of collective intelligence
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Friday the thirteenth is a date not often associated with glorious new beginnings but tomorrow sees the launch (webcast live here at 12:55 PM EST on October 13th, 2006) of a significant new institution that might have far reaching consequences for the way human beings go about their business, organise and run their communities and indeed, run the planet. It's the official start date for the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI) which has the ambitious goal of understanding how to harness the power of large numbers of people—connected together through Internet and other technologies —to better solve a range of business, scientific, and societal problems. Though its agenda is broad and grand, one of the announcements tomorrow will be more focussed - an experiment to create a Wikipedia-style book about how to use communities in business. We Are Smarter Than Me is a business community formed by business professionals to research and discuss the impact of social networks on traditional business functions. Everyone is invited to participate in a revolutionary publishing project - a "network book" to be published in 2007. Each contributing member of this beta community will be listed as an author of the book, and each will receive an equal vote on the distribution of book royalties to charity. The We Are Smarter Than Me community is seeking real examples of companies who are trying to harness the power of community. Just think - this could be the start of a whole new way of doing things - contribute if you can.

"The recent successes of things like Google and Wikipedia suggest that the time is now ripe for many more such systems," said CCI Director Thomas Malone, author of the influential 2004 book, The Future of Work, which examined how information technology enables business to organize itself in new ways. "At CCI, our basic research question is: How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?"

As an example, Malone cites the process of writing books. "Today's publishing industry is built on the assumption that books are written by a single author—or at most a few people. But Wikipedia shows that very different approaches may be possible. What if, for instance, certain kinds of books could be written by large numbers of people with very little central direction?"

In fact, at its formal opening, CCI will announce an experiment to create just this kind of new example of collective intelligence. The joint project by CCI, the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, and Pearson Publishing is expected to involve thousands of people who will collectively write a book--Wikipedia-style--about how to use communities in business.

"CCI is the right organization to lead this joint initiative," said MIT Sloan Dean Richard Schmalensee. "It will give CCI, and all of us, an opportunity to learn as much as possible about how to make collective intelligence successful." "In the long run," Malone said, "this movement toward more decentralized decision-making in business may be as important a change for business as the change to democracies was for governments."

Malone noted that "MIT President Susan Hockfield's presence at the Oct. 13 formal launch is fitting because CCI builds on MIT's deep expertise in many disciplines." The center involves faculty from the Sloan School of Management, the Media Laboratory, the Department of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, the Leadership Center and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

"CCI is trying to look over the horizon to see what will be common five, 10, or 20 years from now. Google, Wikipedia, Linux, and e-Bay are examples that show something interesting and important is already happening. Such examples are not the end of the story, but just the beginning. And I hope that our work can help people understand and take advantage of these exciting possibilities," Malone said.

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