The notion of collective intelligence (CI) is that a group of human beings can carry out a task as if the group, itself, were a coherent, intelligent organism working with one mind, rather than a collection of independent agents.
The idea - referred to by several different terms - has been around for some time, but with recent interest in collaborative and cooperative work, it is being heard more often. Usually, it carries with it a bit of blue sky or is part of a throw-away line. For example, a grant proposal might suggest that the computer system the project is building to support collaborative work might eventually lead to a form of collective cognition by its users. But what, exactly, does that mean? What mode of thinking would constitute collective intelligence? What would be its characteristics? Would we recognize it if we saw it or experienced it?
In this discussion, I examine the idea of collective intelligence in order to try to pin it down and put some flesh on its bones. Thus, I hope to move discussion from a vague notion of collective intelligence to a concept that is reasonably well-defined. In the long-term, perhaps those working in this field can eventually build a theory of collective intelligence that is sufficiently precise so that it can be tested and refined. If such a theory existed, it could have a number of useful consequences. For example, if we really understood how groups of individuals can occasionally and under particular circumstances meld their thinking into a coherent whole, we would have a better idea of how to build computer and communications systems to support them, how to train other groups to work this way, and how to organize projects and institutions to promote this mode of work. I hope this discussion is a first step toward these goals.
Not everyone believes such a theory is possible. For example, Allen Newell (1990) argued that it is impossible for any group to function as a coherent rational agent. His objection, which I discuss in more detail later, is based on the rate at which information can be transferred from one human being to another. He argued that the bandwidth is insufficient to permit the various members of a group to all share the same knowledge - a condition he believed would be required to achieve what I call collective intelligence. NewellÕs objection is an important one that must be answered. Although I cannot refute his premise, I try to build a path around that roadblock.
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