Experts Explore How People and Machines Connect for Social Good

At the Collective Intelligence Conference, Professor R. Luke DuBois discussed his projects that meld together data, digital media and human behavior.

In mid-June, almost 200 participants from 19 countries convened at NYU Tandon for the Collective Intelligence Conference, an annual interdisciplinary event dedicated to advancing our understanding of how groups of humans and computers can best collaborate and how collective intelligence can be harnessed to solve the world’s most pressing societal problems.

Researchers and practitioners from a wide array of disciplines spanning human computation, predictive analytics, public policy, social and behavioral sciences, civil and computer engineering, art, and institutional design took part in the conference, which was chaired this year by Professor Beth Simone Noveck, director of the NYU GovLab. Noveck also moderated a panel on public innovation that explored the great strides made possible by passionately involved citizens and the enabling role that government plays in encouraging scientific innovation. (One of the panelists was Dana Lewis, the founder of #OpenAPS, who, impatient with the progress made by medical researchers, crowdsourced an artificial pancreas app to help patients with diabetes monitor their condition.)


“It’s particularly fitting that Tandon hosted this important conference. The school has always been infused with an ethos of creating technology that can be deployed in service to the public good, and that includes developing ways to use our collective brain power to drive innovation and problem-solving.”
 —  Beth Simone Noveck
 

Noveck also engaged in discussion with Tom Kalil, the former Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, on topics that ranged from the use of government incentive prizes to spur the development of innovative tech to the role of philanthropists in that arena. The opening session of the conference saw Geoff Mulgan, the head of NESTA — a nonprofit group dedicated to using combined knowledge, networks, funding, and skills to tackle big challenges — touch upon the ways in which machine learning is informing collective intelligence; the advantages and disadvantages of algorithmic versus human decision-making; the use of technology to advance democracy; and the possibilities that collective intelligence and artificial intelligence could present for making the planet safer, cleaner, and healthier.

Among the highlights of the two-day event was a presentation by Professor R. Luke DuBois, co-director of Tandon’s Integrated Digital Media program, whose work captures the essence of collective intelligence by bringing together data, digital media and human behavior to create powerful works of art. He described projects such as “A More Perfect Union,” for which he analyzed millions of dating profiles and mapped which keywords were most used in specific locales across the country. It provided an alternative census, DuBois, a composer and artist, explained, based solely on socio-cultural identity.

Another of his projects, “Take a Bullet for This City,” drew attention to gun violence by means of a simple computer-driven mechanism that pulled the trigger of a gun loaded with blanks whenever a shooting was reported on a citizens’-band radio. “That piece is hard data in both senses of the word,” he said. “It’s based on facts; facts that are, by their very nature, intended to hurt us.”

“It’s particularly fitting that Tandon hosted this important conference,” Noveck said. “The school has always been infused with an ethos of creating technology that can be deployed in service to the public good, and that includes developing ways to use our collective brain power to drive innovation and problem-solving.”