Building a global brain to solve sustainability puzzles

Building a global brain to solve sustainability puzzles

Collective intelligence, crowdsourcing, teamwork concept

To solve the world's toughest problems, we may need a mind meld. Make that a mind-and-computer meld.

Or, as everyone else calls it, collective intelligence. The idea of pooling minds and resources holds great promise for sustainability, O'Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O'Reilly said Thursday at GreenBiz's VERGE DC conference.

"We're facing some pretty big problems in the world today," he said. "And the way we've been tackling them has struggled to keep up."

Of course, the concept of using computing to share information among people or devices is hardly new. It has already proven itself in many successful examples, such as in creating pages on Wikipedia, spreading the Occupy Wall Street movement on Twitter or showing where parking is available in San Francisco through the SFpark system.

But now people are taking collective intelligence further.

Services like Zipcar and Relayrides were set up to use resources more efficiently by allowing people to rent cars from a pool of vehicles or from other people, respectively. Now some cities are also using Zipcar as a means to manage their fleets and reduce how many vehicles they own and operate, which cuts costs and saves all the embodied energy -- and other resources -- of those extra cars.

And that's still only the tip of the iceberg, to hear O'Reilly tell it. The convergence of "computing and human potential," he said, has also shown extraordinary results in the form of Google's self-driving cars, which have been able to get through hundreds of thousands of miles in ordinary traffic due to not only improved computing, but a plethora of data.

"Think about how transportation and resource use changes when we have autonomous vehicles," O’Reilly said in a question-and-answer session after his presentation. "Zipcar, Buzzcar, RelayRides, etc. are like the Apple I. There's a lot of change ahead of us."

During his talk, "Towards a Global Brain," he also cautioned that data could also be used for "private gain and public harm."

"When we use collective intelligence for good, such as when social media was used to spread democracy in the Middle East, that's a good thing," O'Reilly said. "How will we make it more moral? Because we've only got one world, and we've got to get it right."


Photo courtesy of maigi  via Shutterstock.