Collective intelligence vs collective stupidity

2015 has been quite an intense year. Tension and polarization seems to be increasing wherever you look.

Meanwhile, scientists and computer engineers are closer than ever to create artificial intelligence. As soon as smart machines will receive the skill to “think” and self-improve (the already legendary moment of “Singularity“), they inevitably have to become very judgmental about the various idiocies that characterize the way humans life together and deal with each others problems.

Experts in this field certainly do not agree about when Singularity might happen and if it ever does. But ruling this out as an option would be ignorant, considering how far information technology has advanced already.

Humans have achieved incredible things. Yet, there is proof everywhere that humans still lack a lot. Just look at the news. Too often, the desire for short-term rewards, group think and cognitive biases are impacting actions and thinking in very destructive ways.

If you use Elon Musk’s analogy of the brain being a kind of computer, then the software that is running on this computer would have to be labeled as “Beta”. It works, and it can be used for great things. But it is also not very stable yet, full of bugs, and too frequently leads to unexpected and also undesired outcomes.

Ever since the appearance of the Homo sapiens, humans have been the smartest species around. That has shaped the collective human awareness of humans being supposedly intelligent. Some certainly less than others. But generally, there is little questioning of the consensus about human intelligence. Despite the misery and destruction humans cause to each other all the time.

The advances in information technology and artificial intelligence mean that human intelligence looks increasingly overrated. No human can ever beat a computer in any calculation process. But the thing humans are capable of being better at is collective intelligence. Making better decisions in a large group compared to a computer.

Unfortunately, too often one can witness the opposite of collective intelligence: collective stupidity. Movements of people, both smart ones and not so smart ones, gathering around a catchy story, acting in short-sighted ways and/or following fallacies that their cognitive biases produce, confirming each other that they must be on the right path; doubts not accepted.

Collective stupidity has always been there. But in the age of weapons of mass destruction and information technology, collective stupidity can cause much more harm.

The tricky thing about collective stupidity is that even many individually smart people can collectively act stupid. Also, collective stupidity is not always easy to spot immediately. In fact, the efforts to create artificial intelligence could, in hindsight, turn out to be just a very intelligent-seeming type of collective stupidity.

Nevertheless: In my eyes, humans need to become better at collective intelligence. Otherwise, collective stupidity will destroy a lot of what has been built and created by humans over many thousand of years. Because now it can.

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