Author Archives: Alberto


The quest for collective intelligence: a research agenda

I am knee deep into the research work for opencare. I think I am learning new things on how to use collective intelligence in practice. This has far-reaching implications for my own work in Edgeryders, and beyond.  Far beyond, in fact. If we crack collective intelligence, we gain access to a new source of cognition. Forget my own work; this has profound implications for the future of our species. If you think that’s radical, go read the work of cultural evolution scholars, like Boyd, Richerson or Henrich. They think homo sapiens has started a major transition: evolutionary forces are pulling us towards a larger, more integrated “collective brain”. We are en route to becoming to primates what ants are to flies.

Collective intelligence is an elusive concept. It appeals to intuition, but it is hard to define and harder to measure and model. And yet, model it we must if we are to go forward. The good news is: I think I see a possible way. What follows is just a  back-of-the-envelope note, plotting a rough course for the next three years or so.

1. Data model: semantic social networks

I submit that the raw data of collective intelligence are in the form of semantic social networks. By this term I mean a way to represent human conversation. The representation is a social network, because it involves humans connected to each other by interactions. And it is semantic, because those interactions encode meaning.

2. Network science: it’s all in the links.

Collective intelligence is not additive: it’s interactional. We can only generate new insight when the information in my head comes into contact with the information in yours. So, what makes a collectivity more or less smart is the pattern of linking across its members. Network science is what allows a rigorous study of that linking, looking for the patterns of interaction which associate to the smartest behaviors.

3. Ethnography: harvesting smart outcomes

Suppose we accept that the hive mind can generate powerful insights and breakthroughs. How can we, individual human beings, lift them from the surrounding noise? Looking at what individual members of the community say and do would likely be fruitless. The problem is understanding how the group represents to itself the issue at hand; no individual you ask will be able to hold all the complexity in her head. We do have a discipline that specializes in this task: ethnography. Ethnographers are good at representing a collective point of view on something. Their skills are useful to understand just what the collective intelligence is saying.

4. “Shallow” text analytics: casting your net wider

Ethnography is like a surgical knife: super sharp and precise. But sometimes you what you need is a machete. As I write this, the opencare conversation consists of over 300,000 words, authored by 137 people. This is a very big study by ethnography standards, and these numbers are likely to double again. We are already pushing the envelope of what ethnographers can process.

So, the next step is giving them prosthetics. The natural tool is text analytics, a branch of data analysis centered on text-as-data. It comes in two flavors: shallow-and-robust and deep-and-ad-hoc. I like the shallow flavor best: it is intuitive and relatively easy to make into standard tools. When the time of your ethnographers is scarce and the raw data is abundant, you can use text analysis to find and discard contributions that are likely to be irrelevant or off topic.

5. Machine learning: weak AI for more cost-effective analysis

Beyond the simplest levels, text analytics uses a lot of machine learning techniques. It comes with the territory: human speech does not come easy to machines. At best, computers can evolve algorithms that mimic classification decisions made by skilled humans. A close cooperation between humans and machines just makes sense.

6. Agent-based modelling: understanding emergence by simulation

We do not yet have a strong intuition for how interacting individuals give rise to emergent collective intelligence. Agent-based models can help us build that intuition, as they have done in the past for other emergent phenomena. For example, Craig Reynolds’s Boids model explains flocking behaviour very well.

The above defines the “long game” research agenda for Edgeryders. And it’s already under way.

  • I am knee-deep in network science since 2009. We run real-time social network analysis on Edgeryders with Edgesense. We have developed an event format called Masters of Networks to spread the culture beyond the usual network nerds like myself. All good.
  • We collaborate with ethnographers since 2012. We have developed OpenEthnographer, our own tool to do in-database ethno coding I’d love to have a blanket agreement with an anthropology department: there is potential for groundbreaking methodological innovation in the discipline.
  • We are working with the University of Bordeaux to build a dashboard for semantic social network analysis.
  • I still need to learn a lot. I am studying agent-based modelling right now. Text analytics and machine learning are next, probably starting towards the end of 2016.

With that said, it’s early days. We are several breakthroughs short of a real mastery of collective intelligence. And without a lot of hard, thankless wrangling with the data, we will have no breakthrough at all. So… better get down to it. It is a super-interesting journey, and I am delighted and honoured to be along for the ride. I look forward to making whatever modest contribution I can.

Photo credit: jbdodane on CC-BY-NC

Derelict urban landscape

Is social entrepreneurship still viable in the age of Trump and Brexit?

Does anyone remember social entrepreneurship? It was all the rage from the mid-2000s until recently. Social entrepreneurs are risk-takers with broad vision, like Schumpeterian entrepreneurs; but they care about fixing problems more than about making money.  For them, making money would be not  a goal, but a way to be independent from handouts from the Powers That Be. The theory is that they have the right skillset to attack the world’s problems.

This would happen through disruptive market solutions. Take housing. A social entrepreneur’s solution would be a cheap, eco-friendly houses that you could build yourself, with the help of your friends, for – say – ten thousand Euro (yes, people are working on it). This would make housing affordable to everyone, and break the tyranny of the mortgage. It would also disrupt the hell out of the real estate barons. This does not bother the social entrepreneur. Creative distruction is a good thing.

The idea took hold. An ecosystem (though not a very good one, at least not yet) emerged around it: impact investors, social accelerators, social entrepreneurship-friendly policies. Two powerful political players, above all others, backed this idea: José Manuel Barroso’s European Commission and the UK government during the Brown and Cameron-Clegg administrations.

Despite the hype and some real support, no one ever believed this was going to be easy. Even if you do get a brilliant idea and the resources to deploy it, disrupted industries won’t go down without a fight. Things would get ugly. But the social entrepreneur would hold the line. Entrepreneuring is always difficult. Yes, commitment to social betterment adds some complications, but she knows she’s making things right for the people.  That’s a big non-monetary reward.

Some people bought into the idea and had a go at building financially viable, socially beneficial companies. I guess I am one of them: I co-founded a company called Edgeryders, a not-for-profit company. We have our own market to disrupt, consultancy. We do it by delivering expert advice by smart communities, rather than professional consultants. As we go, we generate meaningful, paid work for the brilliant misfits in the precariat.

And then Brexit happened.

The Brexit vote has negative implications for social entrepreneurship.

  1. It goes in the direction of breaking up the European single market. If your company, like my own, starts by colonizing a niche this is bad. A niche in a large market might still be large enough for you to survive, thrive and expand. The same niche in a small market might be too small to support your business.
  2. It throws a wrench in the free circulation of people. This is also bad, because our talent pool is already limited. It takes a certain kind of person to fit well into a social enterprise. Employees take more risks than in ordinary companies, but without the pay offered by commercial startups. Free circulation gives us access to more smart, dedicated, hireable people. Many social enterprises tend to have both an international mindset and an international workforce.
  3. It creates instability, which is bad for business if you are selling anything new. Investment in innovation gets deprioritized during turbulence.

But Brexit has an even more important implication. It shows that many people do not want to live in the world we are trying to build for them (and ourselves). Social entrepreneurs tend to be urban liberals. They rejoice in diversity, and many of them are themselves expats. They are committed to meritocracy. They respect facts, and attempt to uphold them over beliefs an prejudices. They dislike the thought of living in the “Little England” evoked by the Leave campaign. They worry about the disregard for factual truth displayed by the whole Brexit debate. They – we – are simply not the right people to help disgruntled Brexiters to build the world they want.

Smart people have been trying to make sense of the Brexit vote, and  of the parallel rise of Donald Trump (exampleanother example). The prevailing narrative goes something like this: the white working class feels left behind. There are jobs, but they are not “good” jobs. They don’t offer “a sense of community and self-worth”. They think the world owes them (but not Syrians or Iraqis or Italians) a certain kind of life. They are  not interested in alternative paths to community and self worth which our society does offer, like cheap or free access to art, entertainment and learning opportunities.

Skilled demagogues have been working on this dissatisfaction. They were able to convince white people in Deep England to express it by “breaking the system”. In practice, this means voting for nativist political parties who target immigrants and ruling élites, in this order.   They simply don’t care what they break, or who they hurt to make their point. The loss of opportunities for social enterprises are not intentional, just more collateral damage. .

I will resist passing judgment on this stuff. It is what it is, and we need to factor it in. What I do have to pass judgment on is this: is it still worth it being a social entrepreneur? Big business is our enemy on the market. The people we were meant to help are our enemies on the political arena. Is our mission still achievable? Is it even worth anything to society at large?

Photo credit: Geoff Llerena – Reposted from CheFuturo (Italian)

Erasmus students in Oslo

What Hans Magnus Enzensberger does not get about Europe

Advised by my friend Luca Galli, I read Brussels, The Gentle Monster by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. A distinguished poet and author, Enzensberger takes an impassionate look at the historical anomaly of the European Union. The book has three things to offer:

  1. An unusually balanced account of the European project. Enzensberger is a critic, but that does not stop him pointing out the many good things about European institutions: the uncompromising renounce to violence and cohercion, the benevolent attitude, the altruism. Conversely, he has no trouble chastising Brussels for the many things that make it unpopular with some people.
  2. An interesting account of the early days, marked by Churchill and, especially, Jean Monnet. The latter is extremely interesting: a technocrat trying to build peace in postwar France, Monnet seems to have served as the template for the European civil servant, a sort of “Eurocrat Zero”.
  3. A theory that the European Union is fundamentally undemocratic. In a sense it may have to be, because “democracy just does not work at the supranational level”. Policy implication: the EU should “go on a diet”, restricting its sphere of influence as much as possible.

The first two contributions are valuable. However, I think the third – though it does offer an important intuition – is undefensible. Let me elaborate.

  1. States are platforms (unless you are a nationalist). What are states for? Most people do not really care about state institutions, like post offices, standard setting bodies or air traffic control authorities. We care about our loved ones, art, having fun, traveling, making money, whatever gets you and your fellow citizens excited. State institutions are platforms infrastructure. They enable us to live our lives more cheaply and easily. When they work well, they are invisible. Just like your phone’s operating system, you’ll only notice them when they break. Most people do not know or particularly care who runs infrastructure, as long as it works (many Italians think Brussels is better at running them than Rome). I wrote “most people”, because there are people that, on the contrary, deeply care about their states as good in and of themselves. These people are called nationalists. Nationalism does not have a good track record in Europe: more nationalism correlates almost without exception with more wars. You should be very cautious around nationalism. It kills people.
  2. Modern life requires larger platforms than European nation states. As a small (but global) entrepreneur in Europe, I am now struggling with the following problem. If a company in country A wants to hire an employee who resides in country B, it faces quite a lot of complexity, due to the fact that the employee’s salary is taxable in country B. I do not to want to go into the complexities here, but the important point is this: the specifics of doing this depend not on European regulation, but on the bilateral treaty between country A  and country B. This implies that, in a Europe with 28 members, there are are 784 (28 to the power of 2) different legal regimes. If you are trying to hire, or get hired, you see how a European platform would work much better than a plethora of national ones. Nation states are simply not large enough to be efficient – unless they are China, or India, or the US. The last two are federations anyway, so why not us?
  3. The European democratic deficit is caused by member states, not by Brussels. Enzensberger points out flaws in the democratic accountability of European institutions, and he is right. For example, it is illogical, even outrageous that the (elected) European Parliament cannot initiate lawmaking, whereas the Commission (designated by member states) can. So why do we not have more democracy? Why can’t we elect the President of the Commission, why can’t Parliament have a monopoly on lawmaking, enacting a true separation of powers? Because members states do not permit it. And why do they not permit it? Because European-scale full democracy would imply the hollowing out of the power base of national élites. If and when the EU completes its evolution from club of states to a confederal state in its own right, it will no longer need to fall back on member states for its legitimacy. In this sense, Enzensberger is right: where states are involved, no democracy is possible, because states are more interested in their self preservation than in their citizens being part of a fully realized democracy.
  4. Democracy is a failsafe, not a nirvana. I propose that many political thinkers have an idealized, unrealistic take on democracy. Like states, democracy is not good in itself. We need it, because the people running our platforms could grow power-crazy and drag us, through lies, into war, so it’s good to be able to oust them. But, let’s face it, democratic participation is difficult and costly, and often ineffective as a failsafe (Hitler came to power winning elections in 1933). As Enzensberger readily admits, the European Union is doing a very good job of “again and again valiantly taking action against cartels, oligopolies, protectionist dodges and banned subsidies” (many readers will remember Mario Monti’s giant fine to Microsoft for acting as a monopolist). If the EU is good at this, why not let it get on with it? Ideally, let us elect the president of the Commission, so we can oust her if we do not like the work she does. But otherwise, this stuff is not broken, so don’t fix it.
  5. Europe’s mission is not accomplished. According to Enzensberger, we do not need Europe to be more integrated than it already is. Why does he say that? Apparently, because he already knows many people in Europe (“divorced husbands, summer homes, business partners…”). I guess this is enough for him. I hope my example with the 784 different legal regimes for something as simple as hiring a person proves our current level of integration is not enough for everyone.

I may be wrong. But then again, I don’t think I am. In the final part chapter of the book, Enzensberger reports a conversation between himself and an anonymous Eurocrat. The latter can very easily deflect most of Enzensberger’s critiques :

Why on earth do you keep on about the European Union? Why do you avoid talking about Rome, Budapest or Dublin? These national governments are not one whit better! their bureaucracies leave a great deal to be desired. There is no lack of narrow-mindedness and incomprehensible hollow verbiage in one as the other. I won’t even mention the scheming and corruption I encounter every day. Lobbyists, if you’ll allow me to be frank, are like flies, no matter, in your country too [Germany]. Just take a closer look at your tax system, your irrational health and education reform. Everything of which you accuse us, you find again if you look in the 27 different national mirrors of this European Union.

That leaves the problem of the democratic deficit. But that’s fixable, if we accept a reduction of the power of states. Enzensberger’s unforgivable failure (and that of his generation) is that he does not consider this as a possible alternative: he does not even contemplate it. I think Jean Monnet’s culture is a much better ticket for a free, prosperous future.

Photo: Erasmus students in Oslo, by Jose Ramòn Alvarez Suarez