Digital transformation and the future of intelligence

digital transformationVinton Cerf, one of the inventors of TCP/IP, is fond of talking about what he calls “network intelligence”. By that he means the makeover of IT landscapes triggered by digital networks and leading to rapid and fundamental changes in technology.

Computer experts often refer to this process as “Digital Transformation”, and there is no reason to believe that it will only have an effect in technology. In fact, digital transformation is going on as we speak in humans who are the users and beneficiaries of this digital technology. We ourselves are changing the way we communicate, enjoy ourselves, do business and organize society. How’s that for “digital transformation”?

Digitalization and networking may actually spawn the development of a new, superior form of human intelligence, which we will henceforth call communicative intelligence. The collective IQ of a network community, we believe, is greater than the total sum of the IQs of each of its members. In fact it is entirely possible that this collective IQ will behave according to the network effect first postulated by John Metcalf n 1993 which states that the benefit of networks will grow exponentially to the number of users.

Communicative intelligence will shape the way markets behave, according to the Cluetrain Manifesto, the unofficial bible of online marketers published in 1991 by Rick Levine and his colleagues Doc Searls and David Weinberger. The book consists of a collection of 95 theses that describe how the relationship between vendors and customers will evolve as the Internet and the “New Economy” cause tectonic shifts in the balance between the two.

Markets today are conversations, the Cluetrain Manifesto states. This is easily apparent when we think about how the act of purchasing things has changed over the past few years from a linear process (you saw something, you went to the store and bought it; vendors could focus their marketing efforts almost exclusively on the point of sale) to a networked one. Today, we see or hear about things on Facebook or Twitter; we listen around to find out what other customers have to say; we look up prices on comparison portals and buy from however offers us the best deal. And the conversation continues even after we have bought the product, because we immediately start sharing our experiences and impressions with others on the Social Web.

In marketing-speak, this is now known as the “customer journey”, the process itself is often referred to as “social shopping”. The vendor, it turns out, is largely reduced to the role of spectator in this game, at least until the customer actually clicks on the “buy” button. All the vendor can hope to achieve is to be allowed to take part in the conversation, but even that is not at all certain.

So what will the future bring? What will the results of communicative intelligence and digital networks on individuals and on society as a whole be? Is homo sapiens really evolution’s last word, or are we on the brink of the next step in the development of human intelligence, this time triggered by technology and our use of more and more intelligent tools? And more to the point: How will we know if we have moved to a new, a higher form of human intelligence?

Maybe what we need is a kind of “social Turing test”. Alan Turing, many will remember, was a British computer scientist who suggested a way of testing machines for intelligence long before there were computers in the modern sense of the word. Turning spent most of World War II unraveling the secrets of the German army’s “Enigma” coding devices and later committed suicide after his homosexuality came out which carried both a social stigma and the threat of legal persecution.

Turing envisioned a test setup consisting of a human interrogator connected somehow (since it was a though experiment, details didn’t matter) to another human being and the mechanical device being tested, which were both sitting behind a screen. The tester would ask both of them as many questions as necessary in order to determine which the machine was. If the tester failed to find any difference, it would be assumed that the machine was demonstrating a degree of intelligence equal to that of a human being.

Incidentally, no computer program has ever been able to pass the turning Test, and not for lack of trying, either. Every year, a competition is held for a prize established in 1990 by the American inventor Hugh Loebner. The $100,000 for the first algorithm to convincingly exhibit human-like intelligence has yet to be claimed.

The collective intelligence of a society will be measured in future by the amount of information it can amass and make available. The society with the greatest store of accessible information will be superior to other, less informed societies and political systems. The information needs to be “autonomous”, for instance because it is stored in the Cloud and is therefore available to anyone who wants it. If we achieve that, then we will truly be able to say of ourselves as a society that we are equipped to deal with the challenges digitalization and networking present us with by using information in a productive and creative way.


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