Beyond Collaboration, Collective Intelligence?

SAN JOSE, Calif. – A group of computer pioneers, tech visionaries and other deep thinkers gathered here to kick off a two day celebration of Doug Engelbart’s famous demo forty years ago.

The 1968 event at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was considered the first public demonstration of many computing concepts we take for granted today: interactivity, real-time text editing, multiple windows, video conferencing, use of a mouse and hypertext linking.

Monday featured a series of sessions at The Tech Museum of Innovation focused on how to better enable “collective intelligence,” a key driver of Engelbart’s work. Engelbart (83), was a front row witness to what may have been the highest bit of praise ever given to anyone in tech, save for a Steve Jobs parody.

“As I was flying over the ocean to get here yesterday I was thinking ‘I’m going to paradise to see my god,'” said Hiroshi Ishii, associate director of the MIT Media Lab and head of its Tangible Media Group. “Without Doug’s vision I wouldn’t have done any of my work.”

The Minority Report comes to life

Ishii’s presentation included some extraordinary demos of work being done at the Media Lab, where he and his colleagues are trying to bridge the gap between the digital and physical worlds.

Ishii showed a video of g-speak developed by Oblong Industries. Similarities to the video and the movie Minority Report are no coincidence, as one of Oblong’s founders was a science adviser to the movie and based scenes on earlier work he’d done at MIT.

Oblong is touted as “the first major step in computer interface since 1984.”
The video shows someone with a sensor-embedded glove moving elements around and between multiple screens simply by gesture. At one point he even “pulls” a graphic element off wall screen with a simple motion to move it onto a table top computer.

In an apparent reference to Microsoft’s efforts, Ishii said he was “happy to see a big giant company finally doing surface computing.”

Ishii showed how a user might navigate through and manipulate complex information from, for example, an air traffic control system. Video can also be scanned by gesture as Tom Cruise did in Minority Report.

While he isn’t exactly sure how these systems will be used, Ishii underscored the importance of developing for the future as a kind of early warning system. “We don’t know what kind of future is coming but it’s important to be ready for it,” he said.

Advanced Collaboration

Presentations at the event were augmented by voting devices at each table, with votes tabulated on different topics and further refined in an attempt to better harness the collective intelligence. Input was also gathered by participants in Second Life. The discussion is continuing on Tuesday.

Going beyond or at least augmenting the human element, Professor William Mark at SRI discussed work he’s doing in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on systems that learns and assists in the collaborative effort. One example already in development is a Meeting Assistant, software that captures what’s said in, for example, a meeting, and provides a summary of the results.

The system, which is designed to highlight important things like action items, could be useful to others who couldn’t make the meeting or to others who want a quick review. Meeting Assistant might not be perfect, but “it could learn to get better.”

Collective dangers

Professor Paul Resnick of the University of Michigan, while enthusiastic over the potential of more collaborative technologies and systems, warned there will always be problems. “The more we rely on collective systems, the more incentive there will be for people who want to manipulate them,” he said.

Resnick gave several examples of how complex information gathering systems can be manipulated. In one case, critics of President George W. Bush were able to get the president’s bio page be the top result to the search “miserable failure.” A later manipulation moved former President Jimmy Carter into the second spot.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) eventually changed the way it linked to information to get more accurate results.

He also said there was evidence supporters of presidential candidate John McCain were able to bury negative stories on him on the community site Digg by voting them down, while Barack Obama supporters were able to push positive stories about him higher by pushing extra votes for those stories.

Resnick said there are ways to limit undue influence with systems like CAPTCHA and other techniques, but there will always be flaws or holes that some people will exploit for their own reasons. “It will continue to be a cat and mouse game,” he said.

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