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Computers take collective intelligence to the next level

Thomas Malone Superminds

We’ve all heard the common worry that robots will take our jobs. But what if they were to work alongside us, making us better at what we do? Thomas Malone, Founding Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and author of the 2018 book Superminds: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together, says this collaboration between humans and AI is the future.

Malone recently spoke to Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, the CEO and publisher of MIT Technology Review, for their show Business Lab, about his book and the idea of superminds. What exactly is a supermind, you ask? It’s essentially another way of talking about collective intelligence, or the idea that a group of people working together can be more intelligent than the individuals that make up that group. Organizations, democracies, markets, communities, and hierarchies are all examples of superminds. Malone contends that computers can make groups of people even smarter.

From efficiency to improvement
We’ve historically used AI for efficiency, but the way forward is using AI for improvement. As Malone says, “In business, there are two ways of making more money. One is to reduce your costs. The other is to create more value. I think we've been way too focused on AI applications for cost cutting and not nearly focused enough on AI applications for value creation. You can only make so much money by cutting costs, but there is, in some sense, no limit to how much money you can make if you're able to do some new thing that people want that couldn't even be done before. That's a lot more exciting, in many cases, economically.”

Some ways technology can help improve people’s jobs are hyperconnectivity and flexibility. Hyperconnectivity means everything is talking: person to person, person to computer, and computer to computer. It can now be done at scales and in rich new ways that were never possible before. Thanks to technology, the way people do their jobs is also much more flexible than ever before: you don’t have to physically be at an office or a conference to learn what’s being presented there. You can watch it on your computer at home, or read about it online.

Superminds: good or evil?
The tricky thing about superminds is that they can be used for good or evil. Malone says that when writing his book, he focused on the positive impact superminds can have on society. But after his book came out, superminds began to be seen in a more negative light due to the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, Russian interference in the election, and the proliferation of fake news. “When fake news influences voters in a democracy, that's often an example in which the computers make the democracy more stupid,” says Malone. “And what I really think we need to do is think about how to use these technologies wisely in ways that have the best chances of creating good outcomes.”

He says the only limit to how we use technology is our own mindset and imagination. If we have the mindset that AI can not only improve but create jobs, then it’s possible. If we imagine all the ways AI can better society instead of harm it, we begin to see a bright future.

Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management, a Professor of Information Technology, and the Founding Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Read more about his book, Superminds: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together.

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