August 4th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

Collective Intelligence: The Semantic Web 4.0

If you haven't been to the Earth Intelligence network then by all means go now: click here. This is a site that will open your eyes to the next great ventures in collective intelligence and open democracy in action.

The Semantic Web concept is the brain child of the father of the web Tim Berners-Lee: "The Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation."

Nova Spivak tells us that "the Semantic Web provides a way to make the meaning and interpretation of information explicit in a form that is unambiguous and publishable, and shareable, on the Web. This will make all this knowledge understandable by software. It’s almost like the invention of a new language—a sort of metalanguage for formally expressing what exactly you mean when you say something. The impact of this could be enormous.

"For the first time in human history, we won’t have to rely only on humans to create, understand and consume knowledge—our machines will be able to help us do this. They will help us work, collaborate, create, explore, monitor, discover, search, innovate, connect, and synthesize. This will open the door to an almost unimaginable amplification of the human mind, and human collective intelligence on this planet. At first the impact of this will largely be focused around assisting humans with simple clerical and research tasks, but the process will inevitably continue to evolve to a point where software will begin to originate new knowledge for us, advise us, and eventually to even start making certain types of decisions on our behalf."

Spivak's company created a news services based upon these semantic web concepts of collective and progressive collaboration, where you can create your own network and publish information through Facebook and Twitter. As he says:

"Evri is a Web-based online service that is completely built using the Semantic Web. Although it is only in early beta-testing at the time of this writing, it is already demonstrating that intelligent machine-augmentation of individual and group knowledge management is possible and improves productivity and collaboration.

He sees the semantic web as the beginning of what some have called the Singularity, that Omega Point where machine intelligence in collaboration with human intelligence awakens; yet, it will not be as many in the AI community have envisioned it:

"Because the Web is quite different from the human brain, it is likely that its intelligence will be different from what we think of as human intelligence today. But it will nonetheless be intelligent—in a massively distributed, emergent, and chaotic way that we humans may not be able to even comprehend. The “thoughts” the Web will think may be just too vast and complex for us to even recognize, let alone imagine or understand. Yet perhaps in decade-long time-scales at least, we will begin to be able to see the outlines of its thinking."

           - from Harnessing the collective intelligence of the World-Wide Web by Nova Spivak.
S.C. Hickman

Collective Intelligence: Stygmergy

"This is the perspective of stigmergy, i.e. the spontaneous, indirect collaboration made possible and stimulated by a shared medium [Heylighen,2007a,c]."

In his essay on "The Emergence of the Global Brain", Francis Heylighen tells us that the "mechanism of stigmergy, which was proposed to explain the collective intelligence of social insects, is perhaps best exemplified by Wikipedia, the global electronic encyclopedia that is being written collaboratively by millions of people." Through collaboration and collective effort humans are create a universal encyclopedia that is open ended. Through a process of revision and reflexivity the wikpedia collaborators create information that is both vital, accurate, and useful. A second generation effort DBpedia is being created based upon Semantic Web principles.

He sees the web as a neural network with pages linked in a non-hierarchical format. "This hypermedia architecture is analogous to the one of our brain, where concepts are connected by associations, and the corresponding assemblies of neurons by synapses. The web thus functions like a huge associative memory for society." He sees a coming time when each of us will have our own personal agent who will be adept at organizing our daily news, intelligence reports, stock profiles, appointments... all the decision making processes that a Secretary, Research Agent, Legal Aid, etc. do now. These agents will filter the information through  lens we can tool to our needs and desires in based upon algorithms that we apply. First generation agents will be more under our direct control, but as the future of the Semantic Web takes hole and the data infrastructure is set in place we will begin to see machine based intelligence systems that will be more and more life like, capable of making decisions for itself based upon its interaction and knowledge of our needs and desires.

He is a true technocratic visionary which we must all be a little leery of as in this passage:

"With such technologies, the web would become a giant, collective brain, which you could consult at any moment to get an answer to your questions,however unusual or vaguely formulated they may be. Its thought processes
would always be ready to enhance and extend your own thinking. To fully harness the power of this global brain, it should be constantly available. The rapid spread of mobile communication already offers universal access to the
web, wherever you are. Further miniaturization will lead to wearable computers, incorporated in your clothing, with images projected on your glasses. Automatic recognition of speech, gestures and even emotions will make communication with the web much easier and more intuitive. In the longer term, we can foresee direct connections between computer and brain, through neural interfaces. This would allow you to communicate with the
global brain simply by thinking, having your thoughts immediately sensed, understood, and enhanced. Your thoughts could also be directly turned into actions, as when you use the global brain to order a pizza, get a taxi, or switch
on the heating, so that it would be nice and warm by the time you come home."

The cyborgian nightmare vision of a merger of the human and machine might be his idea of a sound future, but I'm still leery of such technocratic grandeur. He sees this merger as a benefit for a new social economy: "The global brain will not only facilitate direct communication between buyers and sellers, but help buyers to find the best value (e.g. through shopping agents to compare prices), and help sellers to get the best price." A capitalist technocracy utopia where every consumer is programmed with a smiley face... lots of luck!

Yet, he does throw a bone to the environmentalism and global health issues: "Yet, the global brain can support not
only the process of reaching consensus on a plan of action, but also its practical implementation. For example, combating infectious diseases or pollution will require extensive monitoring of the number of infections or concentration of polluting gases in different regions. Information collected by local observers or by electronic sensors can directly enter the global brain, be processed to reveal underlying trends, and be forwarded to the people or institutions responsible for taking direct action."

What's always interesting is that many of these technocratic visionaries never look at how the corporate and military world can also tool this open brain to its own nefarious ends. Like anything else we need to be very vigilant and aware of the tools we're bringing into existence. They can have both positive and negative applications...