Thursday, August 12, 2004

Wisdom of Crowds

Keeping with this week's theme of prediction, I just finished reading The Wisdom of Crowds written by New Yorker writer James Surowiecki. The book makes the case that large groups can make great decisions, often better than any individual in a group, if three conditions occur:
  1. diversity of the members of the group,
  2. independent opinions of the group members, and
  3. a method for aggregation of the opinions.
Surowiecki's very readable book gives many examples where group decisions do quite well (sports betting, Google's search techniques based on other's web pages, Linux) and where group decisions fail (stock market bubbles, committee meetings, strong CEOs).

Chapter 8 is devoted to science and how many widely spread scientists developing and criticizing various theories lead to explosive growth in our understanding. He also notes that this ideal world has its flaws as unknown researchers have a harder time selling their work than more established scientists.

I don't agree with all the conclusions drawn by Surowiecki but he does lay out what we need to do and not do to benefit from the pooled knowledge of a group. We can also draw lessons in computer science as computation and information gets more distributed that we need to integrate to find the best solutions we can.


  1. Here's an interesting example of a group hive mind experiment for playing video games. And here's a hive mind font inspired by that story.

    What's interesting in the font is that the current letters themselves look like they have random noise, but the average of the pixel values looks quite nice: indeed, averaging is a good way to aggregate the opinions, and in this case it ends up giving you anti-aliasing.

    (These links are from a Slate article that reviews the same book.)

    I suppose some believe that are minds come from a similar principle.

  2. For another example of the wisdom of crowds,
    see "Aggregating Disparate Estimates of Chance"