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Collective Intelligence (MIT Communications Forum)

10/04/2007 5:00 PM Bartos theater
Thomas Malone, Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management, MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, MIT Sloan; Dr. Karim R. Lakhani, SM '99, PhD '06, Assistant Professor, Technology and Operations Management Unit, Harvard Business School; Alex (Sandy) Pentland, PhD '82, Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and Director of Human Dynamics Research, MIT Media Lab; David Thorburn, MIT Professor of Literature
MacVicar Faculty Fellow

Description: Can human beings, with the help of smart machines, not merely avoid -collective idiocy" (in Sandy Pentland's words), but actually achieve a degree of intelligence previously unattainable by either humans or machines alone? These three panelists study the possibilities from different angles. Thomas Malone's Center for Collective Intelligence examines such evolving intelligent systems as Wikipedia, which relies on a veritable army of volunteers to -create a high quality product with almost no centralized control," and Google, with its technology -harvesting knowledge" and serving up answers to a vast audience of seekers. While a crowd doesn't guarantee the best solution to a problem, Malone sees opportunities in -prediction markets," where humans, with the computational help of computers, predict things with greater accuracy than single experts, whether in electoral politics, or in medical diagnostics. Malone's research is also attempting to set up metrics to measure the intelligence of these new human group-machine hybrids, and ways of applying collective decision making to climate change policy. Alex (Sandy) Pentland performed a unique experiment in a large German bank, tagging its employees with special badges that tracked individuals' interactions, down to head nodding, body language, and tone of voice. His research, conducted over a month, looked at how face to face interactions played into the overall organizational flow. The patterns he uncovered in the data collected from his name badges and from email and more traditional documentation, demonstrated the significance of social dynamics in workplace productivity. Certain individuals acted as information bottlenecks; others as polarizers, group thinkers, or gossip mongers. Pentland shared information about these patterns of communication with individuals. -Rather than think of this as big brother," says Pentland, -think of this as a personal intelligence tool that collectively produces better results." Related technology might be able to detect depression by examining a person's patterns of socialization. Karim R. Lakhani says he -stumbled into collective intelligence and distributed information systems as a puzzle." While trying to market his large corporation's medical imaging system, he discovered that a small Canadian group had -leapfrogged" his R&D team. A community of radiologists and physicists pooled their expertise to improve imaging technology, and beat a large, centralized lab. Since that time, Lakhani has pursued other examples of decentralized groups of people with a wide range of motivations, efficiently cracking complex problems-- from the open source software community, to biotech labs and entrepreneurial ventures. A T-shirt company, Threadless, asks its online community of a half million to submit T-shirt designs, and vote on them. The best scoring designs go into production. Sales are closing in on 1.5 million shirts at $20 a pop. Says Lakhani, -One hope of collective intelligence is that it takes the distributed and sticky pockets of knowledge that exist in the world and finds ways to aggregate them for us."

About the Speaker(s): Thomas W. Malone was one of the two founding co-directors of the MIT Initiative on "Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century". His research focuses on how new organizations can be designed to take advantage of the possibilities provided by information technology.

The past two decades of Malone's research are summarized in his book, The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style, and Your Life (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). Malone is the co-editor of three other books, as well. Malone has been a co-founder of three software companies and has consulted and served as a board member for a number of other organizations. Before joining the MIT faculty in 1983, Malone was a research scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where his research involved designing educational software and office information systems. He earned a Ph.D. and two master's degrees from Stanford University, a B.A. from Rice University, and degrees in applied mathematics, engineering-economic systems, and psychology.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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December 13, 2011 19:40
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