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“May you live in interesting times,” is an old English expression whose enigmatic meaning can make people wonder whether they’ve been offered a blessing or a curse. Regardless of the apparent well-wisher’s intentions, interesting times are oftentimes a blessing for some and a curse for others. The difference depends upon how capable and how fast people are in recognizing and embracing new ideas and new opportunities.
We, today, are clearly living in interesting times, perhaps the most interesting times in the history of human civilization. We find ourselves in the midst of a technological phenomenon that is far more transformative than previous technology revolutions because it is thoroughly, radically, and rapidly rewriting all the rules for how the world works. This phenomenon, which we have been calling Digital Transformation, is the fundamental architectural shift in the way the world works from top-down hierarchies to peer-to-peer networks.
Digital Transformation is much more than a technology revolution. It is arguably the most consequential socioeconomic revolution in human history because the transcendence of peer-to-peer networks will dramatically transform the basic contours of the human experience. This phenomenon is far bigger than most of us are prepared for because the vast majority of us are lacking in an understanding of the dynamics of networks. We are much more conversant in the mechanics of the hierarchical structures that have shaped the evolution of the human experience since the dawn of civilization. Unfortunately, our knowledge deficiencies in the ways of networks cause us to significantly underestimate the magnitude of the inflection point that is happening in the world around us as most remain blind to what is hidden in plain sight. If our interesting times are to become a blessing, we will need to quickly close our network knowledge gap because Digital Transformation is about to go into overdrive with the coming emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT). Once the IoT becomes the fundamental fabric of our everyday lives, what has been hidden in plain sight will become painfully obvious to those who fail to fill the knowledge gap.
An Evolutionary Leap
In the next decade, we will experience two of the most consequential events in human history: the connection of all humans and things via a common digital network and the proliferation of human collective intelligence via artificial intelligence systems. These two events will result in an evolutionary leap in the human species because they will create new dimensions of human intelligence that have never existed before.
Thanks to Moore’s law, sensors will become ubiquitous. They are already in our cars, home appliances, street lamps, medical devices, and smart phones. They will soon be in our clothes, the walls in our homes, the buildings where we work, our food, our pets, and even our bodies. As these sensors proliferate, they will become inevitably interconnected by the IoT and will propagate a plethora of data at rapid speeds in permutations and combinations that have never been available to us before. When this happens, the IoT will become a platform for highly sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) systems that will substantially exceed the capabilities of any single individual. These AI systems will be able to process the universe of sensor information at the speed of Google searches. They will be able to recognize weak signals and identify patterns across the data that would normally escape even the brightest experts among us. And using the technologies of machine learning, these AI systems will interact with humanity to advance our understanding of the world around us and to enhance the quality of our lives, especially as AI systems become the foundation for a new era in medicine fundamentally oriented around sustaining health rather than treating illnesses.
The Ultimate Manifestation of Collective Intelligence
Currently, there’s much ambivalence about the future of AI and whether it’s a blessing or a curse, especially among those who are concerned that advanced AI could become hostile and upend humankind as the dominant species. However, if we look at AI from the perspective of a network mindset rather than the more familiar hierarchical worldview, we will begin to understand why AI systems are far more likely to be extensions of humanity than they are to be separate and competitive entities.
Hierarchies are designed to leverage individual intelligence, and thus promote the notion that the most intelligent should naturally rise to the dominant position at top of the pyramid. This explains why those with a limited understanding of networks are fearful of AI. They dread that AI will become the smartest entities on the planet and will use this intelligence to exercise coercive control over humankind. However, the phenomenon of Digital Transformation, which is providing the technology that makes AI possible, is also spawning a radically different and an evolutionary superior form of social organization: the peer-to-peer network. Networks, in contrast to hierarchies, naturally leverage collective intelligence, which enables them to be far more powerful than traditional top-down structures.
The unprecedented emergence of technologies and social structures that have the capacity to rapidly aggregate and leverage collective intelligence is a Cambrianesque leap in the evolution of human intelligence. Rather than being separate entities, AI systems following the evolutionary laws of networks referenced earlier in this series—the law of connections, the law of self-organization, and the law of collective intelligence—have the potential to be the ultimate manifestation of human intelligence.
The Nature of Collective Intelligence
I first learned of the extraordinary power of collective intelligence about twenty years ago when I was tasked with improving the performance of a complex business alliance of thirty-nine companies that had sustained two decades of anemic growth. As our team considered various strategic options, it became clear to us that the root of our growth stagnation was our own management approach. We recognized that we led this alliance as if it were a typical hierarchical firm, and as a result we spent a substantial amount of time arguing with the various organizations about who was in charge. Maybe, we began to surmise, we need to learn how to lead a network. This would mean developing a very different set of skills based around building consensus rather than giving directives.
An important part of our new approach was to design an innovative meeting format (which today is known as the Collective Intelligence Workshop) that would minimize the usual debates that characterize the typical business meeting and employ sophisticated facilitated meeting techniques to achieve rapid consensus among the disparate partners in our business alliance. These meetings were highly successful, and it wasn’t long before we realized that in designing our “no debate” meetings, we had fortuitously and unexpectedly stumbled into a process that effectively and rapidly aggregated the collective intelligence within the room. And once we discovered this powerful phenomenon, we were able to use it to solve previously unsolvable problems.
What impressed us immediately about collective intelligence is that it is extraordinarily intelligent and incredibly fast. We recognized that having a process to converge the best thinking from divergent perspectives gave us the capacity to create breakthroughs that no one of us could do alone. And given our track record of endless parochial debates, we were stunned that issues that would normally fester for months, or sometimes years, could be resolved in the span of a few hours. But perhaps the most distinctive attribute of this newfound asset is that it greatly diminishes, if not eliminates, the natural cognitive biases that the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky convincingly proved plague individual judgment and decision making.
The Possibility of a Profound Blessing
While the history of humanity has been a progressive evolution of more advanced technologies and civilizations, this human development has been marred at times by inhuman atrocities. Most of these atrocities can be traced to the manifestation of some form of human bias acted out in judgments or decisions made possible by the oppressive exercise of control that is an inherent hazard in hierarchical forms of social organization. One of the social benefits of collective intelligence structures is that, by effectively integrating all the various diverse perspectives, they essentially eliminate the wherewithal for single individuals to wrestle enough control to impose their individual biases on captive audiences.
Over the next decade, tandem developments in the Internet of Things and blockchain technology will come together to enable a human-machine symbiotic network that will morph into a superintelligent artificial intelligence system exponentially smarter and faster than any of us individually or all of us combined. The continued rapid emergence of the peer-to-peer network as the dominant form of social organization, together with the use of collective intelligence dynamics to shape the development of artificial intelligence systems will ignite an extraordinary leap in the social exercise of human judgment and human decision-making. If this happens, our interesting times are highly likely to become a profound blessing.
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