Geoff Mulgan on Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World

A new field of collective intelligence has emerged in the last few years, prompted by a wave of digital technologies that make it possible for organizations and societies to think at large scale. This “bigger mind”—human and machine capabilities working together—has the potential to solve the great challenges of our time. So why do smart technologies not automatically lead to smart results? Gathering insights from diverse fields, including philosophy, computer science, and biology, Big Mind reveals how collective intelligence can guide corporations, governments, universities, and societies to make the most of human brains and digital technologies. Highlighting differences between environments that stimulate intelligence and those that blunt it, Geoff Mulgan shows how human and machine intelligence could solve challenges in business, climate change, democracy, and public health. Read on to learn more about the ideas in Big Mind.

So what is collective intelligence?

My interest is in how thought happens at a large scale, involving many people and often many machines. Over the last few years many experiments have shown how thousands of people can collaborate online analyzing data or solving problems, and there’s been an explosion of new technologies to sense, analyze and predict. My focus is on how we use these new kinds of collective intelligence to solve problems like climate change or disease—and what risks we need to avoid. My claim is that every organization can work more successfully if it taps into a bigger mind—mobilizing more brains and computers to help it.

How is it different from artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is going through another boom, embedded in everyday things like mobile phones and achieving remarkable break throughs in medicine or games. But for most things that really matter we need human intelligence as well as AI, and an over reliance on algorithms can have horrible effects, whether in financial markets or in politics.

What’s the problem?

The problem is that although there’s huge investment in artificial intelligence there’s been little progress in how intelligently our most important systems work—democracy and politics, business and the economy. You can see this in the most everyday aspect of collective intelligence—how we organize meetings, which ignores almost everything that’s known about how to make meetings effective.

What solutions do you recommend?

I show how you can make sense of the collective intelligence of the organizations you’re in—whether universities or businesses—and how to become better. Much of this is about how we organize our information commons. I also show the importance of countering the many enemies of collective intelligence—distortions, lies, gaming and trolls.

Is this new?

Many of the examples I look at are quite old—like the emergence of an international community of scientists in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Oxford English Dictionary which mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers in the 19th century, or NASA’s Apollo program which at its height employed over half a million people in more than 20,000 organizations. But the tools at our disposal are radically different—and more powerful than ever before.

Who do you hope will read the book?

I’m biased but think this is the most fascinating topic in the world today—how to think our way out of the many crises and pressures that surround us. But I hope it’s of particular interest to anyone involved in running organizations or trying to work on big problems.

Are you optimistic?

It’s easy to be depressed by the many examples of collective stupidity around us. But my instinct is to be optimistic that we’ll figure out how to make the smart machines we’ve created serve us well and that we could on the cusp of a dramatic enhancement of our shared intelligence. That’s a pretty exciting prospect, and much too important to be left in the hands of the geeks alone.

MulganGeoff Mulgan is chief executive of Nesta, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and a senior visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Ash Center. He was the founder of the think tank Demos and director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and head of policy under Tony Blair. His books include The Locust and the Bee.