Jul 7

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

What good is collective intelligence if it doesn't make us smarter?

Two stories I read yesterday morning are worth sharing. The first, an editorial by science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg, was entitled The Death of Gallium, a meditation on the increasing scarcity of valuable elements like gallium, used in flat panel TVs and computer displays, which is estimated to be used up by 2017. Other less rare but equally important minerals are also expected to run out within decades. The other, a New York Times story entitled Asleep at the Spigot, is summarized well by its subtitle: "A thirst for oil comes back to haunt a nation of gas guzzlers." It's a short but poignant history of the many warnings and missed opportunities to change our gas guzzling habits during the seventies, eighties and nineties, when the eventual shortage was apparent, but the political will to make changes was lacking in the face of opposition from companies interested in maintaining the status quo, backed up by a short-sighted electorate.

These stories are a great way to highlight the focus of the 2008 Web 2.0 Summit Launchpad. We've entitled the business plan competition "Web meets world," described as follows:

For Launch Pad 2008, the focus will be on startups in the fields of alternative energies, social entreprenuerialism, microfinance, developing economies, political action, renewable technologies, and the like. We'll be particularly interested in where these companies display significant cross over with the web, of course, but this will not be required.

This might seem like quite a departure for the Web 2.0 Summit, the conference that made its name by celebrating the revolution in the consumer internet caused by the move to the internet as platform, service based business models, and social media. Or is it? After all, I've argued all along that the real heart of Web 2.0 is the ability of networked applications to harness collective intelligence. Yes, you can harness collective intelligence to build amazing internet businesses, as the past five years have shown us.

But what good is collective intelligence if it doesn't make us smarter?

In an era of looming scarcities, economic disruption, and the possibility of catastrophic ecological change, it's time for us all to wake up, to take our new "superpowers" seriously, and to use them to solve problems that really matter.

The potential is huge. In recent months, I've seen fascinating startups for earth monitoring, carbon markets, energy efficiency of electronic devices, and home energy management. There are lots of projects for open government and responsive politics, which in an ideal world should have commercial potential. There are world-changing opportunities in collaborative scientific research, early detection of infectious disease outbreaks, personalized medicine, resource discovery, new materials, you name it.

That's why we've titled this edition of the Web 2.0 Summit The Opportunity of Limits. As John Battelle wrote so eloquently on the Summit web site:

In the first four years of the Web 2.0 Summit, we've focused on our industry's challenges and opportunities, highlighting in particular the business models and leaders driving the Internet economy. But as we pondered the theme for this year, one clear signal has emerged: our conversation is no longer just about the Web. Now is the time to ask how the Web—its technologies, its values, and its culture—might be tapped to address the world's most pressing limits. Or put another way—and in the true spirit of the Internet entrepreneur—its most pressing opportunities.

As we convene the fifth annual Web 2.0 Summit, our world is fraught with problems that engineers might charitably classify as NP hard—from roiling financial markets to global warming, failing healthcare systems to intractable religious wars. In short, it seems as if many of our most complex systems are reaching their limits.

It strikes us that the Web might teach us new ways to address these limits. From harnessing collective intelligence to a bias toward open systems, the Web's greatest inventions are, at their core, social movements. To that end, we're expanding our program this year to include leaders in the fields of healthcare, genetics, finance, global business, and yes, even politics.

Increasingly, the leaders of the Internet economy are turning their attention to the world outside our industry. And conversely, the best minds of our generation are turning to the Web for solutions. At the fifth annual Web 2.0 Summit, we'll endeavor to bring these groups together.

In short, we're looking for great startups to introduce to the world in the Web 2.0 Summit launchpad in San Francisco in November. Here's how it works: You start by filling out the application form (by no later than September 10.) If you catch our attention, you'll be contacted to provide a pitch to our panel of VCs, who will consider your presentation as if for funding. Six to eight finalists will appear on stage at the conference, with audience voting for additional feedback.

The full list of participating VCs will be announced shortly, but will include both internet and cleantech VCs. So far we've confirmed Chris Albinson of Panorama Capital, Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, and Mike Goguen of Sequoia Capital.

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Comments: 25

  Rob [07.07.08 06:02 AM]

I think the chaps behind the mySociety website here in the UK, have made great steps in this direction with sites like 'they work for you'...


  Harsch [07.07.08 07:05 AM]

Perhaps the major search engines should follow your advice and work on harnessing collective intelligence in real-time. It is painfully obvious how they can do that. The first one to do it may well be on their way to becoming the future of search.

  Tim J Peters [07.07.08 09:28 AM]

All I infer from your post is that the sell-by date on web 2.0 has come and gone, and you are looking to stay relevant. Nice try, but at the very least, you should rename the conference, so it won't be so transparent.

  gregorylent [07.07.08 10:00 AM]

But what good is collective intelligence if it doesn't make us smarter?

collective intelligence is ALREADY smart. when we embrace it, we stop impeding it. problems over.

  Tim O'Reilly [07.07.08 10:04 AM]

Tim J Peters -

If this is the case, why do we have thousands of people requesting invitations to the event, not to mention doubling the size of the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco this past April?

Do you really think we're done with the web as platform?

That's a bit like saying a personal computing conference started in 1982 should have folded its tent and gone home by 1987.

  bowerbird [07.07.08 10:25 AM]

when you get the answers, twitter them to us...


  Jake Kaldenbaugh [07.07.08 10:29 AM]

You're spot on here -- there is huge opportunity to use our new social technologies to dramatically improve the quality of life across our planet. However, don't underestimate how much human/social engineering this will require. As one person points out, the technology is almost there, it's the ability for us as societies, corporations, non-profits and individuals to exploit it. Putting some starter capital behind these efforts could generate tipping points that create substantial social and economic opportunities. You've convinced me that this is a must attend event.

  stopschdyhacks [07.07.08 10:29 AM]

a lot of collective intelligence went into making flat screen tv's or suv's or suburban mc mansion's.

as far as social collective intelligence well that is a whole different breed. for starters, i bet it would be impossible to define what would be collectively intelligent for all people. it's not a perfect model but a useful one none the less, maslow's(sp?) pyramid of needs would say that what is collectively intelligent for one group does not necessarily mean it would be good for all groups at all levels of the pyramid. second, humans have free will, relatively. what they do with this is, well, just about anyone's guess. because of this free will and the scarcity of resources you mention in the article the only practical way to enlighten people, i.e. collective intelligence, to the benefits of conservation is to increase the price to a pain point. good old fashioned economics.

how to improve upon rationing via price to force collective intelligence for resources? well, that would be nothing more than the usual early education. How bout ethics, deeper understanding of the human psyche or maybe, even dare I say this in the toni(sp?) circles of the tech elite, personal finance and frugality for kindergartners(sp?)?

  Tim O'Reilly [07.07.08 11:11 AM]

stopschdyhacks -

Agreed that collective intelligence goes into most modern products. For the classic essay on this, see I, Pencil from 1958.

Agreed that it's hard to reconcile conflicting needs. There's no panacea.

But the point, as Google chief economist Hal Varian pointed out in a NYT article today, “the source of Google’s competitive advantage is learning by doing.” There are new tools for learning from and responding to our environment.

In this regard, I can't help also pointing to the work of Enrico Giovannini, chief economist of the OECD, in trying to build a "happiness index" in contrast to the usual economic indicators. What we measure is part of what we respond to.

  umair [07.07.08 11:36 AM]

hey tim,

did you guys read my manifesto for the next industrial revolution?

it sounds a lot like what you guys want to discuss. in fact, we've been having killer discussions at about this stuff for the last few weeks.

everyone that is interested in this stuff might want to take a glance if time permits.


  Tim O'Reilly [07.07.08 11:51 AM]

Great stuff Umair. I definitely recommend that everyone else follow the link in Umair's comment (and just in general follow his blog.)

(I hadn't seen this piece before, but it's on the money.)

  Chris Spurgeon [07.07.08 12:57 PM]

Lord knows I'm no expert, but I get the impression that the Gallium crisis may not be quite so dire. It's my understanding that our current methods of Gallium collection are quite inefficient, and that there are possibilities for huge improvement. Perhaps this will be similar to what has happened with petroleum in recent decades as new technologies, combined with increased demand, led to oil extraction in areas that were previously considered either tapped out or not worth the trouble. There are also a number of alternate technologies for things like displays that vastly reduce the need for Gallium.

But until that day I wouldn't be surprised (I'm not a commodities broker either) if Gallium prices jump all over the place as the demand for it matches production, making even little dips in production lead to big price spikes (again, just like oil).

Finally, this issue brings light on how important it is to think about conservation and use reduction of ALL resources, not just things like carbon-emitting energy, forests, water, etc.

  Daniel Tunkelang [07.07.08 01:05 PM]

It strikes me that you (and Umair) are looking to entrepreneurs and new technology to resolve what are various flavors of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Everyone would prefer a greener planet, but no one wants to make a personal sacrifice for it. The same goes for countless other collective goals.

Thankfully, we are not pure homo economicus: there are countless examples of altruistic behavior. Still, we have a hard time coordinating on behalf of collective good. And, ironically, collectivism has an even worse track record than free markets when it comes to improving the collective good.

So, is all hope lost? No. I think that the way out is to create more effective mechanisms for collective action. For example, imagine implementing matching contributions, but on a larger, decentralized scale (e.g., I'll donate $X to a cause if at least 1,000 other people also agree to donate $X). A similar approach might help to address voter apathy.

Just throwing out ideas--I'm sure there are many ways to run with this. My point is to think more like an economist rather than a technologist. Curious what Hal Varian would have to say.

  Alex Tolley [07.07.08 01:11 PM]

Tim: "But what good is collective intelligence if it doesn't make us smarter?"

Isn't that like saying why doesn't human intelligence make neurons smarter? A better analogy might be that swarm intelligence doesn't make the individual of the colony smarter. Collective intelligence may already be quite good - we just cannot see its effect at our individual level, just glimpse some of its effects.

So I would suggest that collective intelligence is good, even if individuals are not necessarily made smarter. In reality, we are made smarter too, but that may not be as important as the collective.

  Michael Sparks [07.07.08 04:03 PM]

Daniel Tunkelang - regarding your comment "imagine implementing matching contributions, but on a larger, decentralized scale (e.g., I'll donate $X to a cause if at least 1,000 other people also agree to donate $X)"

This already exists:

Your comment is specifically reminiscent of this pledge: which started at OpenTech 2005 - 3 years ago.

  Matthias [07.07.08 04:13 PM]

The Web will sure further develop.
The only question is how?
We are all responsible for the further development.

  Ross Stapleton-Gray [07.07.08 06:14 PM]

A scarcity of Gallium will produce (1) profits by those who invest in Gallium futures; and/or (2) successful new ventures promoting Gallium alternatives (or means to recover Gallium from the waste stream... a former grad student colleague of mine was advising Russians dismantling old "supercomputers" for precious metals). Gallium exhaustion is nothing like the problem wholesale environmental degradation, with collapsing ecosystems, seemingly will be. And yet there's a valiant rear guard that's fighting tooth and nail to deny that we humans are having any appreciable impact, or (though this would probably be the minority) it doesn't matter, as the Rapture will push the "reset" button. Most of us seem to grok the problem of human impact on the planet, but the tragedy of the commons (and the tragic plight of the commoners, unable to sufficiently influence the Powers That Be) is sinking us.

  Daniel Tunkelang [07.08.08 09:00 AM]


Thanks for the link! I'm thrilled that someone did this, if embarrassed that it took me 3 years to find out about it. I'd been trying to push the idea back in 2001 to anyone who would listen. Glad someone else came up with it and was more persuasive / determined.


  amar irani [07.09.08 01:36 AM]


How could you so blindly recommend Umair's "manifesto"?

Wealth creation comes before distribution. We need to eliminate hunger and poverty, not 'organize'them, Soviet style!

  PR NY [07.09.08 11:57 PM]

Here is an idea for a new name for the summit to reflect the new direction:

Synergy 2.0

  james ream [07.12.08 10:24 AM]

We can predict what will happen, to resources and social systems.

We are collectively reaching the tipping point of realizing what must be done.

It is important that the visionaries pull the rest of us out of industrialism before it all collapses on itself.

Thank you Umair and Tim for doing all you can to spread this very important message. I moved to silicon valley because I believe in this message. What I found was even in SV, people are largely superficial. Where can I volunteer?

  Michael R. Bernstein [07.15.08 05:03 PM]

I have a feeling that the need for large new supplies of various rare elements will be what finally propels us into large scale human presence in space (ie. asteroid mining).

  Andy Jackson [07.23.08 06:37 PM]

Collective intelligence exists in vast quantities out here. INSIDE the governments, however, it is dangerously scarce.
That is the place that we need to start doing some cleaning, elected officials and career bureaucrats alike.

Only then will we get real, transformational change.

  Joe Marchese [07.28.08 09:46 PM]

What if you don't need VC money? What if you've already built a Web 2.0 company that believes social media's real promise is to improve the world we live in, people are flocking to it and you just want to talk about it with other people how believe the same thing?

  Andy Wong [08.10.08 03:51 PM]

In the old days, "collective intelligence" was called profiling, done by experts manually aggregating info relevant to a subject. Collective intelligence is not to make the subject be smarter, but to make the experts smarter.

Nowadays, these experts (like Google, Facebook and other Web 2.0 stuffs) carry out the works with great computing powers and baits of collecting intelligence. We enjoy the baits, and the experts get intelligence. How good it is!

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