Collective intelligence is a general term for intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals in a group. A group of people is not only more powerful and stronger than a single person, it can also act smarter than a single individual. A crowd for example can show surprising levels of wisdom ("The Wisdom of the Crowd") if there is a large variety in personal opinions. A swarm can exhibit fascinating forms of swarm intelligence.
Collective and swarm intelligence can be found in all animal groups, even among insects, one of the most ancient animal types. Among humans it has existed since the first humans appeared on earth. Tribes of hunter-gatherers, ancient cultures, modern nations, and large corporations all act collectively with varying degrees of intelligence. New communication technologies now have enabled new forms of collective intelligence. Today the internet allows a huge number of people all over the world to work together on a single project. Wikipedia is the best example for such a distributed collaboration.
Followers in a social network can form a kind of hive mind, an emergent property of apparent sentience that arises from the behaviors of a group of individuals which share a certain interest. Such a group can react faster and may have deeper knowledge than any individual.
Advantages of the Collective
Increased vigilance and faster reaction
A collective can make faster and more accurate decisions through collective vigilance. A recent paper in PNAS shows that groups make faster and more accurate decisions the larger they are (presumably up to a limit). The primary reason is that larger groups have "more eyes" than smaller groups. As long as information transmission through groups is not significantly delayed, larger is better.
More resources and deeper knowledge
A large group has access to more information, more resources and deeper knowledge, especially if the diversity of the group is high and there are a large number of different experts in the group. This advantage is used in crowdsourcing. Key factors for collective intelligence are diversity, independence, and decentralization.
- Ashley J.W. Ward et al., Fast and accurate decisions through collective vigilance in fish shoals, PNAS Vol. 108 No. 6 (2011) 2312-2315
- Iain D. Couzin, Collective cognition in animal groups, Trends Cogn Sci 13 (2009) 36–43.
- Wikipedia entry for collective intelligence