Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book Review: 'Big Mind' by Geoff Mulgan

Aggregation without Integration is not enough

We are, as ever, at a cross roads. We have the choice to combine forces for the greater good, or leave all the potential just sitting there, and proceed as usual, learning the hard way. We can pool our data, expertise and ideas to resolve climate change issues, or argue about whether they should even be considered. It’s back to Carl Sagan’s point – who speaks for Earth or even just earthlings? If we could get our acts aligned, we could make much deeper progress much faster. But our competitive society prevents such thoughts, let alone actions.

I think the reason I like Geoff Mulgan’s books is that ideas come at you like buckshot. Packets of multiple ideas fire again and again with every chapter, page and paragraph. If you’ve learned nothing from a Geoff Mulgan exercise, you must have slept through it. In Big Mind:

-Computers can generate answers much more easily than they can generate questions, the mark of real intelligence. 
-Greater knowledge does not bring greater comfort. It brings awareness, anxiety, caution and worry. It gives us vast new things to worry about. 
-All our gadgets do not make our lives simpler; they add complexity.
-The vast majority of meetings in business, academia and politics ignore almost everything that is known about what make meetings work. 
-There’s a temptation to make too much use of data that happens to exist, and manage what’s measured rather than what matters. 
-We spend our lives looking for confirmation rather than responding to intelligence. 
-We risk not having internalized the lesson if we haven’t experienced the errors. 
-There are levels of abstraction as organizations move to more diverse ways of looking at their situations. Those that can’t, stay stuck in the primordial reactions to events. (eg. airline security, which continually punishes passengers further every time there is a threat, instead of thinking how to make flying safer.)
-Universities do research and development on everything except themselves. (Universities should be actively collecting knowledge as much as disseminating it.)

-Cultures that think of themselves as individualistic, dissident and rebellious tend to be highly conformist. 
-The biggest danger in any field is the delusion you understand why you succeeded. 
-intelligence is highly improbable, and collective intelligence is even more so.

All of this pivots about the point Mulgan calls the third loop of learning. The first loop is what we all do – observe, and apply rules we know. The second loop makes use of knowledge to come to new and innovative conclusions. The third loop is when whole sectors and industries change in light of anticipated developments and ways of thinking and doing. Doing this at world scale is Mulgan’s idea of collective intelligence. It means combining with data and artificial intelligence, because people alone and computers alone can accomplish far less.

What emerges is that although he has been thinking along the lines of a collective intelligence for many years, Mulgan is not prepared to predict or envision it. There are too many variables, too many unknowns, and too many rogue components for anyone to pretend they can nail it down. We are held back because our institutions aren’t open in their thinking, and we are stymied by competition rather than co-operation. He would like collective intelligence to coalesce into a discipline.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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