Feature Story

Collective Intelligence in the Palm of Your Hand

by Eric Rabkin

Communications devices were once seen as threatening. Now, they keep us safe and make us smarter.

From Dick Tracy's "two-way wrist communicator" to Star Trek's tricorders to the easily cloned cellphones in the new techno-thriller TV series Person of Interest, something important has happened.  The iconic tool of the savior hero has undergone a triple evolution: It is ever more capable, ever closer to the tools of the writer's own time, and ever more integrated into our technological networks and cultural mind. 

But these devices do more than tap collective intelligence: They augment that collective intelligence, subliminally symbolizing the benefits we can all share in a technological here-and-now that science fiction more usually suggests we should dread.

Disqus: What devices have made us smarter?

Person of Interest postulates a "machine" that hacks into all existing communication and surveillance devices, seeking patterns that warn of large-scale terrorist threats. But this potential monster is used by its disaffected creator, via a "back door," and his partner, a disaffected black-ops agent, to save individuals.  The team stays in constant touch with each other and the machine, and often with the hacked cellphone of a "person of interest," to ensure each week that justice will prevail.

According to CBS executives, this show garnered the highest ratings of any drama pilot in the last 15 years.

And then there is iPhone 4S, which Gizmodo says flatly "is the best phone you can buy right now," owing significantly to Siri, the voice-activated program that listens, speaks, and shows the results of its world-wide searches on your smartphone screen.  To Siri, we are the person of interest.

Apple charges a premium for Siri, but a company called Nuance offers Dragon Go!, a sort of Siri-lite app, for free. 

The usual explanation for free apps is an obviously commercial one exemplified by Google's personalized ads and Amazon's personalized recommendations: faceless entities silently observe us so that they can better sell to us, which is often true.  The less usual, but equally true, answer is that we consciously provide information that has commercial value for the hosts—like reviews for Yelp and adjustments to Google Maps—because we want to make their free offerings more valuable to us all. 

Thoughtlessly, however, we also enable important but invisible data mining. One outstanding case of mining our aggregate behaviors is the ongoing analysis of Google searches on various health symptoms and treatments in order to spot the beginnings of flu outbreaks long before reports come in from medical professionals.  This allows the CDC to warn those professionals and proactively augment and redistribute medical supplies. 

Even less known is the hidden use of captchas, those hard to decipher words or "words" that a user must sometimes type on a website to prove he or she is not a machine.  The powers behind those captchas don't merely grant or deny a user's request.  If the user makes a mistake but on a subsequent trial gets the captcha right, the first error becomes part of an ever larger database used to fine-tune algorithms behind machine vision. 

In the same way, Dragon Go! not only returns text searches but watches to see if we type in corrections of the text it used.  Thus we provide data crucial to refining Nuance's voice-recognition software.  We all become unwitting test subjects, paid not in money but in ever more efficient and useful services. 

The real intelligence is not in the device we hold in our hand but in the collective intelligence that passes both ways through that device, giving us new powers and, in so doing, contributing to the empowerment of us all.  Precisely because our experiences are so positive, the tools of science fiction seem less to frighten us, like the rogue computers of old, than to validate our hope that there are heroes in this world now.

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