Swarms of bees, shoals of fish, flocks of birds and a rowdy crowd of students. Ever wondered what fish and medical decisions have in common?
The ability to congregate and act collectively as a group- collective intelligence (CI). The study of CI in humans is a relatively new field in biology, which describes the universal distributed intelligence which arises from the collaboration and competition of many animals and the ability of an animal group to perform a wide variety of task. Scientists for centuries have been fascinated by the theory and mechanisms behind which such behaviour arises. Originally during the 1970’s psychologists and sociologists were primarily interested in looking at an individual’s viewpoint, how they are influenced and change their decisions based on others, peer-pressure and bias.
However the more modern consensus proposed by biologists focuses on the information that each individual has which, above a certain threshold, will take into account other individuals decisions as well as their own to result in one collective movement. Several mathematical models have been used to describe the complexities seen across nature, from the movement of birds to large herds, and is radically transforming the way we share information, communicate and work.
The possible use and value of tapping into the CI of species is endless. Biomimetics in particular has been implemented in many different areas of science to make our lives easier and to solve complex tasks. For instance, medical decisions with true and false positives, has recently concluded that the opinions of 3 skin cancer doctors can match that of the best qualified doctor. In terms of the use if this information, society will have to decide whether or not it’s worth paying the extra money to invest in more accurate decision making in medicine.
This basic principal can be seen in shoals of fish when deciding whether or not to flee or stay when an approaching shadow looms. An individual would be stuck in this false or true positive feedback loop on deciding whether or not it should stay or leave, where it could either gain or lose a feeding opportunity. Living in groups beaks this feedback loop as each follows its next nearest neighbour, above a certain threshold number.
Equally, humans have always possessed a deep desire to predict the future and indeed the collective intelligence of humans through the power of the media is showing promising signs of being able to just do that. Through analogous mechanisms seen in the natural world and the application of mathematical metric models to translate similar mechanisms into our modern world, CI has begun to radically transform the way we live our lives for the better. Can we tell the future with science? It seems that we can.
Prediction markets are used in politics for example, whereby large sums of money will be placed on different markets according to their own personal research and information, the decisions of others (in terms of how much they are willing to bet) which results in the resolution of a decision or problem. The hypothesis here is that the collective wisdom of many people is far greater than the conclusions of the few. Political betting has only recently made it to the UK compared to our American counterparts who have taken advantage of this powerful predictive tool, with correct predictions for almost every election between 1868-1940. Indeed our most recent elections in the UK was correctly predicted by the Betfair market, whilst the polls where postulating Ed Milliband would be at No.10, the markets it seems had the best information regarding the trends, and Mr Cameroon did remain Prime Minister as predicted.
Companies such as “Recorded Future” actually use the information already made available on the internet by people, through powerful data mining and search engines- to predict future trends with remarkable accuracy, as seen on social sites such as Twitter. Rather than the traditional prediction markets as mentioned above where peoples opinions are asked with responses to questions, the use of “web intelligence” to look at what people have already said on the internet is search via automated speech processing.
Others companies and institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology work have produced Climate CoLab, were it sets challenges and asks its members to think of collective solutions to tackle global issues related to climate change and energy use. It is a crowd-sourcing platform where citizens work with experts to create, analyse and propose ideas. The members of the community are invited to submit their proposals as well as make comments on others, which then are evaluated by experts to select the most promising ones. The MIT centre for collective intelligence stands at the forefront of this revolutionary use of global intelligence and information and uses new technology to harness the power and change the way people work together.
In terms of design, solutions to smart cities and how we can monitor traffic more efficiently through social media as well as pay for parking through mobile devices has already sparked interest in many countries with increasing congestion due to urbanisation.
This will inevitably determine how we are able to keep up to pace with our ever increasingly changing world, having implications for society, economy and our environment. So next time you tweet…you may be helping to support future decisions. And that it’s not who you are but what you know which feeds into this most fascinating and little covered area of scientific research.