Archive for September 4, 2019

Our Smartest Hive: Discovering a New Altruism

“But never before has it been easy to solicit and collate contributions from thousands or millions of unknown collaborators.“

–Walter Isaacson


One of my pet follies is keeping a few beehives in our back yard.  It’s a folly because, since moving our hives from the leafy suburbs into our leafy city neighborhood six years ago, only once have I harvested honey from them and not once has even one of the four hives I’ve bought each spring survived a full year.  Is it pests or pesticides or colony collapse or a dearth of pollen in the city woods around us that kills our hives?  Andrew Kartal, who supplies us with our bees each year and inspects our hives when I have a crisis, thinks we don’t have enough pollen in town.  But, being a devoted fool, I keep trying to figure out city beekeeping by fiddling with how I feed them and how I treat them for pests and any other trick I can try.

I don’t do it for the honey.  I do it for the fascination of watching the collective wisdom of these hives in action.  How do they figure out who does what when?  The stray honey bee that follows me into the kitchen when I’m preparing the feeding buckets appears as dumb as a house fly.  But as one of the thousands in the hive, that bee plays several key roles in what makes a hive miraculously smart.  How do they all figure out when to requeen and when to swarm and how many drones should tend the larvae while others forage for pollen?   I’d love to be a fly-on-the-wall in those council meetings.

Under more favorable conditions and in the hands of better beekeepers, three thousand drones and a queen make a plenty smart enough hive to thrive through the years.  What interests me more urgently is what the sufficient number and composition is for our own species to thrive through the years.  One of my colleagues, Jurgen Unutzer at the University of Washington, signs his emails followed by the motto “None of us is as smart as all of us.”  This turns out to be a quotation from Kenneth Blanchard, the author of The One Minute Manager, a popular book on corporate leadership.  But I wonder how we should read “all of us.”

Under most circumstances all of us in large numbers are not very smart.  Mob justice is never patient, compassionate, or subtle.  The crowd psychology of rioting protesters is rarely creative or clever and usually ends badly.  Even large peaceful, well-organized demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people can at best deliver a single message for a day or two: stop the war, give us our freedom, end racism.  Our largest effort at collective decision-making, national elections, which involves millions, is limited to a list of yes/no votes on a single day—not a complex or sophisticated process.  Historically our most productive efforts at collective intelligence have taken place in huddles, councils, board rooms, and committees, which do their best work when the number in the room is less than twenty, often closer to ten.

Then along comes the Internet, and with it the discovery of a new capacity of the human species.  Listen to how Walter Isaacson summarizes this discovery in the last chapter of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014, p 482):

“Like the computer, the ARPANET and the Internet were designed by collaborative teams.  Decisions were made through a process, begun by a deferential graduate student, of sending around proposals as ’Requests for Comments.’ That led to a weblike packet-switched network, with no central authority or hubs, in which power was fully distributed to every one of the nodes, each having the ability to create and share content and route around attempts to impose controls.  A collaborative process thus produced a system designed to facilitate collaboration.  The Internet was imprinted with the DNA of its creators.

The Internet facilitated collaboration not only within teams but also among crowds of people who didn’t know each other. This is the advance that is closest to revolutionary.  Networks for collaboration have existed ever since the Persians and Assyrians invented postal systems.  But never before has it been easy to solicit and collate contributions from thousands or millions of unknown collaborators.  This led to innovative systems—Google page ranks, Wikipedia entries, the Firefox browser, the GNU/Linux software—based on the collective wisdom of crowds.”

Finally, after eons of evolution, we invented a tool, the computer, that allowed us to tap into a capacity we didn’t know we had.  We’ve done this man-and-tool trick before.  The invention of musical instruments revealed our capacity for elaborate musical communications.  Ships led to distant travel that revealed our capacity for learning foreign languages.   Guns and steel revealed our capacity for large-scale warfare and massacres.  Now the Internet and the systems it has spawned have revealed our capacity to work with many thousands of strangers on a mission that serves people we will never know.  We have done this not for love or money or fame, but for the chance to participate in and belong to something meaningful and useful to “all of us.”

The revolutionary discovery is that under a novel set of conditions a large self-selected group of people can cooperate through a governance structure by consensus to create highly sophisticated systems of open-source software.  No bosses, no experts, no voting, no pay, no credit.  The built-in mechanisms for self-improvement of these systems increased the chances for survival of the invented software.

One of the conditions that allowed Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia to eclipse Nupedia, which was edited by experts, and Encyclopedia Britannica in just a few years was the counter-intuitive premise that allowing anyone—not just experts—to contribute and edit articles would improve the quality of the articles rather than diminish it.   That open-door and hands-on policy, which looked to most like an invitation to chaos, proved key to tapping this unrecognized resource.  With just a few guidelines created collaboratively by the Wikipedia community (such as “articles should strive for a neutral point of view” and disputes about facts required mediation), Wikipedia mushroomed from 1,000 articles in 2001 to 100,000 articles in 2003 with 500 active editors.  When the Encyclopedia Britannica quit publishing its print edition in 2010, its electronic edition had 80,000 articles, less than 2 percent of the articles in Wikipedia.  In 2014 Wikipedia had grown to 30 million articles in 287 languages.  This growth of Wikipedia represents knowledge power and dissemination on a scale unimaginable in 2001.

Isaacson wonders why some people have devoted thousands of hours to these projects.  This is “commons-based peer production” driven by “a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals,” he writes.  He cites the reward of interacting with others and the personal gratification of doing useful work, the same altruism that makes us do old-fashioned church work or food drives or litter pick-ups.  Caring for our neighborhood is good for us.  But now we have “wiki-crack, the rush of dopamine…when you make a smart edit and it appears instantly in a Wikipedia article.”  This is a new kind of altruism on a new scale with a greater reach.

The Internet and some of its offspring appear to have created a big room for a subset of “all of us” in which the wisdom of the crowd really does create a smarter hive for the rest of us.  Now what is the next currently unimaginable invention that will tap this deep well of altruism?  Is the power of this resource equal to the challenges of our big problems: poverty, famine, plagues, warfare, corruption?  If Google can’t tell you, just Wiki that question.