Collective intelligence community discusses social issues and COVID-19 at ACM conference

June 29, 2020

By Gianna Barberia

The ACM Collective Intelligence conference, hosted this year by Northeastern University, looked a little different—over 170 collective intelligence leaders from across the globe tuned in from their laptops to hear from over a dozen speakers, including a Nobel prize laureate, on Zoom.

Though pandemic guidelines made meeting in person on Thursday, June 18 impossible, everyone adapted easily. Attendees wrote in their questions to speakers online to participate in Q&As and broke off into virtual networking sessions via Minglr, an experimental software system developed by MIT and Northeastern to support virtual ad hoc conversations.

“When organizing this conference, we faced many difficult decisions,” said Conference Chair Christoph Riedl, who is an associate professor with a joint appointment at Northeastern’s D’Amore McKim School of Business and Khoury College of Computer Sciences. Although the organizers thought about cancelling, they ultimately decided the content and networking opportunities were too valuable. “We wanted to organize something to engage with colleagues during this incredibly difficult time.”

The conference was divided into four themed sessions: Biology & Neuroscience, Organizational Behavior, Politics, and Economics. Although topics and specialties varied amongst speakers—some topics included “How to improve presidential elections” and “The selective attention of schooling fish”—two underlying themes were prevalent throughout the day.

The first was social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. When introducing the conference, Riedl, along with Program Chairs Jessica Flack and Walter Lasecki, stressed the importance of diversity both within the collective intelligence community and in society as a whole, especially since a lot of research in collective intelligence investigates the role that diversity plays in science, teams, and organizations.

“We hope that everyone can come together as a community and leave no one out,” Riedl said. “Collective intelligence is improved by diversity. We’d like to do what we can to increase diversity in the community.”

These sentiments were reinforced by the conference’s first speaker, Thalia Wheatly, during her talk, “How conversation creates neural synchrony in groups.” Wheatley, a professor at Dartmouth College, asked attendees to ponder the question “Are we friends with people of a similar mind?” We already know that people tend to cluster with others of a similar age or gender, but do they also cluster with like-minded people? Through her research, Wheatley found that people tend to shape each other’s views, and she pointed to the Black Lives Matter movement and its tremendous growth and support over the years as an example. When analyzing a social network, she explained, those within just one path length display remarkably similar neural responses, while those two or three path lengths away did not see the same kind of similarity.

The second common thread revisited throughout the six-hour long conference was reacting and adapting to the coronavirus using technology. Thomas W. Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, discussed how COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated changes he anticipated would take decades.

“The pandemic is like a bullet train to the future,” Malone said.

He pointed to the remote workforce as an example of how, moving forward, daily life can change. Jobs that would normally require workers to commute an hour into the office can now be done from the comfort of one’s living room. If employers continue to run their offices remotely, people can choose to live anywhere that they want, not just close to where they work; this, he said, has implications for real estate.

However, Malone did find one consequence of working from home—the lack of ad hoc conversation spaces before, during, and after meetings. This insight led him to develop Minglr, which attendees were given the opportunity to beta test in between sessions.

“Random ad hoc interactions are critical to building connections and camaraderie,” Malone said. “It’s what people are missing right now in our current at-home environment.”

Jeff Howe, an associate journalism professor at Northeastern, also tied his knowledge and expertise to the coronavirus. Howe, who coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, has dedicated his reporting and writing throughout his career to technology and social trends. He explained how there’s no better time than now for crowdsourcing because of its philanthropic motivations. Additionally, the remote workforce brings with it a larger labor pool to respond quickly to online queries.

Nevertheless, Howe acknowledged that crowdsourcing is not a perfect resource during this time.

“The pandemic has helped identify the wrinkles we still need to iron out,” Howe said.

He emphasized that although average citizens are a valuable resource, sometimes a crowd of experts with immense technical knowledge are more necessary (especially during a pandemic).

During the last talk of the day, “Satellite Workshop on Digital Experiments on Amazon Mechanical Turk,” David Lazer focused on the impact these non-specialist citizens have had during their collective intelligence efforts. Lazer, a professor of political science at Northeastern and computer and information science at Khoury College and the co-director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, has surveyed, with the help of Amazon, all 50 states and Washington, D.C., regarding the coronavirus each month. Through these surveys, he and his group have collected data on face mask wearing, stress/depression levels, and public opinion on whether the economy should reopen right away. In addition to this statewide data, the surveys also have collected crowdsourced data at the county level. Overall, these data have helped policymakers visualize what-if scenarios and make important decisions regarding the pandemic.

Howe ended his talk with a statement that can easily sum up all the issues addressed at the conference throughout the day.

“It’s an exciting time and hopefully will be looked back at as a positive time for the field of collective intelligence,” Howe said.

Recordings of this presentation can be found online on the ACM Collective Intelligence’s YouTube page.