An awesome video stimulates collective intelligence discussion


Macrowikinomics Murmuration is a beautiful and fascinating video. Many of the connections made by the commentator are thought-provoking.


However, I suggest it may be not quite correct to say both (a) that individual birds are not intelligent and (b) that collective intelligence depends on individual intelligence. Most birds have notable intelligence. Some, like crows and grey parrots, are impressively smart, despite the insulting epithet “bird brain.” Even when a bird’s intelligence is limited, their ability to respond to the environment around them — as demonstrated by the flocking behavior generated by thousands of such individual responses — is quite profound.

If one equates intelligence with rational thought, that’s a different matter. However, most modern theories consider intelligence a much broader capacity than rational thought, usually epitomized by successful problem solving and/or responsiveness to environmental realities.

The collective intelligence of the birds in the video is manifest by how their flocking behavior collectively solves the problem of the predator hawk who finds itself frustrated in grabbing a starling for dinner.

Furthermore, in human systems, it has been demonstrated that (a) emergent phenomena and (b) collaboration are FAR more important than high individual intelligence in generating collective intelligence. Very smart people can be more effective in getting in each other’s way than people of mediocre intelligence. Groups of ordinary people helped to collaborate and exchange information well, tend to be very collectively intelligent.


A lot of the mainstream theory of collective intelligence, as it relates to this video, is covered in the popular book THE WISDOM OF CROWDS, among others. It deals with the kind of collective intelligence that generates accurate predictions, correct answers to questions of fact, and various market phenomena. It tends to minimize or dismiss the role of deliberation, high quality information, and conscious collaboration and to focus instead on the emergent collective behaviors that are similar to flocking birds.


The kind of collective intelligence that generates quality policy decisions and scientific discoveries, however, is a different type entirely, and depends heavily on deliberation, high quality information, and conscious collaboration. This variety is covered in books like THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY. (This sort of collective intelligence is also discussed elsewhere but using such terms as “public judgment” instead.)


Examples of collective intelligence like Wikipedia are an interesting mix of both forms of collective intelligence, involving both independent agents and emergent “stigmergic” behavior as well as deliberation, high quality information and collaboration. When talking with Peggy Holman about all this, she added: “Leadership in emergent systems tends to be both collective and to draw on diverse skills and abilities. It is a much more complex multi-threaded phenomenon than the ways we traditionally think about and define leadership. This definitely merits a longer conversation.”

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