A revolution on collective intelligence

November 5th 2019, Santa Barbara (California)

Autumn 1906. Francis Galton ushered the theory of collective intelligence (also known as the “wisdom of the crowds”) into the public conscience. Walking down a country fair in Plymouth (England) he came across a competition in which 800 farmers were trying to guess the weight of an ox. He realised that although none of the participants got the right answer, the average of all guesses was nearly perfect. A very powerful concept appeared: nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something.

During the XX century the methods used to gather the crowd intelligence have not changed much: they are focused on the average of independent votes or estimates. But if we take a look at mother nature, is that the approach used by social animals to gather the wisdom of the crowds? How do animals that move in shoals, flocks or swarms take decisions?

Francis Galton, the cousin of C. Darwin

The truth is that mother nature does not collect independent samples to take a decision after an event happens. Swarm animals like ants or bees create real-time dynamic systems in which the continuous interactions enables the individuals to work as a group. Despite the magnificent results gathered by Galton, recent research on human collective intelligence goes along the same lines. Experiments have shown that when humans swarm (i.e., they interact to combine their knowledge and insights) their intelligence is significantly amplified in comparison to those crowds where members independently decide.

Research suggests that as a group we can do it better. Maybe if those 800 farmers had exchanged information about the weight of the animal (“I think this is how much it weights as the skin colour indicates malnutrition”, “Yeah, but in my opinion it might be little more given the condition of its teeth”, etc.) they could have reached a more accurate prediction*.

A key part of Homeward Bound is the interaction among participants, both from our year and from the previous ones. If we are going to use science to fight climate change we are not going to be focused only in research related to carbon dioxide and melting glaciers -we are also taking into account the one that explores the best ways to work together. We are determined to demonstrate the great human potential to swarm. Our objective is to create a network of 1,000 women in STEMM that make an impact in the way we care for the environment. Who knows, maybe 120 years after Galton we achieve a new revolution in the field of collective intelligence.

* very unlikely in this particular case as the crowd estimate was 1,197 pounds when the real weight of the ox was 1,198.

[1] Rosenberg, L.B. and Baltaxe D. 2016. Crowds vs swarms, a comparison of intelligence. IEE

[2] Rosenberg, L. B.  2010. Human swarms, a real-time method for collective intelligence. Proceedings of the European Conference on Artificial Life 2015. 658-659

[3] Woolley et al. 2010. Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science. 330. 6004. 686-688