COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: CREATING A PROSPEROUS WORLD AT PEACE
Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart1
When I agreed to be a judge for the National Infocomm Awards in Singapore,
quite honestly I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. When the boxes
of paper started arriving in multiple DHL packages in California, describing a
lot of different interesting, innovative projects, I thought, "Oh Oh, how ever am
I going to be able to evaluate these people? How can I do the job I want to as a
judge when I have no idea how innovative these products are in the US? Much
less in Asia?"
Well, I was assured “Just do your best!" When someone tells me that, I
know exactly what to do: I always do my best when I augment what I know and
what I can do with the knowledge and expertise of others. I recruited one of the
best guys I knew for being networked amongst the top people in the US
technology community, Eugene Miya. He works at NASA Ames research
center, NASA’s top IT facility. He also happens to be NASA’s technical
reviewer on major innovation research projects, like the Digital Library
initiative. NASA, NSF and DARPA - the US federal agencies for R&D in
space, science and defense, pooled their funding for their WWW related
projects into one big umbrella they called the Digital Library initiative. So
Eugene knows everyone who knows things at the cutting edge of
product/services, particularly those related to the Internet.
With Eugene in place, the rest was easy. He knew who could help with
what. The Chief Scientist at the FBI helped us evaluate the Supreme Court
application e-Litigation and the Singapore Police Force project: AVSS -
Automated Vehicle Screening System. We got a little extra help on AVSS from
Professor Hsinchun Chen at the University of Arizona. He’s developed one of
the latest innovations in US law enforcement, an application called CopLink.
Speech at a gala for recipients of Singapore's National Infocomm awards,, 23 April
For Fairex, Gridnode and Systems@Work, I called on an old buddy of
mine, used to work with me at SRI back in the 60’s and 70’s, Dan Lynch - he
was one of the founders of CyberCash and pretty active in Interop.
Eugene with his knowledge of the NASA and Digital Library worlds filled
in for the rest, Fuji Photo, Infotalk, Muve technologies, Nanyang Polytechnic.
So it was a fun project I’m glad to have been involved in. It’s also a good
demonstration of what I have always felt is a critical component of innovation:
I solved my problem by working with others to tap their expertise.
In a way, my thoughts on innovation reflect this basic feeling of mine: that
to solve problems, we need better ways to work with others. Many of the
inventions for which I get the credit, were developed in the team at SRI called
the Augmentation Lab - they were developed to provide technology that
augmented people’s ability to collaboratively work together to solve problems.
I have been asked, in the short talk to you tonight, to speak to the
challenges and opportunities that face Singapore as it moves forward to become
a central place for knowledge work. The really important thing about
knowledge, of course, is not just having it, but comes in using it to do
something that you couldn't do before - to innovate. The challenge - and this is
true for any person, company, or country engaged in innovation - the challenge
is to move beyond walking step after step down paths that are well understood
and, instead, doing something new. This shouldn't just be good luck. The
really important question is how can an entire society organize itself to
One piece of the answer is how I solved the problem of being a judge
confronted with ten very different innovations in vastly different fields - I
harnessed the Collective IQ of my network of friends and associates.
The other piece of the answer relates to taking a very different view of how
technology can, in fact, multiply enormously the value of Collective IQ.
I have had this long-term, consistent goal about how we can use interactive
computers to do collective work. Long experience talking to people about this,
made me realize that there is a huge amount of resistance to this type of very
large change. This led me to work on that problem - how to help people harness
the great deal of gain that I could see, could come from using the power of
computers to augment our ability to collaborate. How do we use computers not
ELECTRONIC COMMUNITIES AND DISTRIBUTED COGNITION
just to help us do the jobs that face us today - but to actually boost our
This made me think about how inventions affect humans and how humans
are changed. For example, when automobiles were first invented, we had no
rules for cooperating together to avoid collisions or govern traffic flow. We
developed those over time. And we certainly did not have the capability to use,
say, the rear view mirror of a car to handle decisions at 100 kilometers per hour.
But now we think nothing of that. We do these very complex things, but take
them for granted. And, at the same time, in adapting to such activity, we have
changed a very great deal about how we interact, about how we organize our
cities, about how we live and who we are.
If all of this happens with something as simple as an automobile, imagine
what is possible with a computer, if we can interact with it fully.
The experience I had with the radar as a technician during World War II
gave me the idea about what computer screens could be capable of. I turned
these ideas over and over and over again, and worked in positions where I
would try to get grants to work on this stuff. It was the fourth year of trying and
getting rejected that I finally got my first small grant to do a piece of what I
could see was possible.
I suppose that maybe my persistence, in spite of rejection, and the eventual
breakthroughs are due to the fact that I was too dumb to know when it was time
to give up. I have never given up. The reason is that it is so clear to me what
computers could do to help mankind. So, I kept trying to make it real.
Making big innovations is hard and lonely work. It continues today to be
difficult to communicate the many great possibilities that are available by
people working together supported in new, significantly different ways by
computers. At the same time, I am very much encouraged by the conversations
that I have had with people here in Singapore this week. I have the feeling that
there is increased understanding that innovation is a job for a whole society,
and not just something that an individual does, working alone.
As a closing thought, I should tell you that I was asked today whether we
can train people to be more innovative.
I’m no expert at all, I can only say what made a difference for me. I am a
great believer in how much our behavior stems from our memories and from
the experience that we share with others. Where in the world do the big
innovative ideas come from? From the shared human imagination. We need to
train people to unlock and share their imagination.