Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Collective Intelligence Knows About Us

The knowledge obtained by our use of the computer network is a powerful tool. Trillions of key clicks from the daily decisions of millions of people in the course of their everyday lives, builds a bank of data that can be analyzed and tracked.

This bank of information is often called collective intelligence. In fact, harnessing this intelligence through analyses of patterns and correlations is enabling more accurate predictions about our preferences and behaviors.

Human decisions involved in using a computer like purchases and keyword searches are the kinds of activities that can be stored and in aggregate analyzed for knowledge. If you are a user of or use Google Zeitgeist you probably already know what this means. examines patterns of retail behavior using hundreds of variables to recommend future purchases for us to consider. All future purchases are based on buyer behavior involved in previous purchase decisions. Meanwhile, Google Zeitgeist uses collective intelligence to graph search terms used throughout the year to track what topics mattered most to people.

Thomas Malone (Center for Collective Intelligence- MIT) thinks opportunities exist in “prediction markets,” where humans, with the computational help of computers, predict things with greater accuracy than single experts, in many different areas, from electoral politics to medical diagnostics.

Recently, Google announced that it will launch a new tool that will help federal officials "track sickness". Its called "Flu Trends" and it uses search terms that people put into Google. The geographic location of these searches will be used to predict where influenza is heating up, and Google will notify the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in real time.

Engineers will capture keywords and phrases related to the flu, including thermometer, flu symptoms, muscle aches, chest congestion and others. The information will be used to predict flu outbreaks more than one week ahead of time.

So what does collective intelligence now know about us? In the next few months, it can recommend a book that we will surely want to read as we receive our emergency inoculation to avoid that serious flu outbreak predicted to afflict our neighborhood in the next week.

Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive vows: "From a technological perspective, it is the beginning." Indeed, lets just hope that collective intelligence doesn't mean that our own individual privacy will become compromised in the end.

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