Intelligence: the Ability to Do Mental Work.
January 28, 2023
Sam Schikowitz

Humanity is facing some very difficult problems. It will take a lot of mental work to ensure the wellbeing of humanity, and life itself.

There are two potential sources of mental work; humanity, and artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence comes with a large set of unknowns and risks, and the problems are so complex that no single individual has the capacity to solve problems of this size and complexity.

In order to solve these problems without handing our future over to a machine, we must harness the worldwide human potential for collective sensemaking and creative problem solving. Making sense of situations and problem solving are the products of intelligence, and so turning unused collective intelligence into collaborative intelligence to do shared sensemaking and problem solving is the key.

The systems we currently use for collaborative sense making and problem solving are deeply flawed in the following ways:

  • They are not very collaborative, drawing intelligence from a small number of contributors, and
  • The solutions considered are typically constrained to the short term goals of a very small number of people.

This has led to a situation where we are completely unable to resolve the long list of catastrophic situations we face, like

  • Political instability and war
  • Many new types of potentially catastrophic technology
  • Nuclear bombs in the hands of more actors
  • Crispr with gene drive readily available and able to make weaponized viruses
  • Drone technology becoming more powerful and easy for anyone to use
  • AI developing the capacity to dominate the digital infrastructure that runs our society, either on the behalf of their owners or possibly for their own reasons.
  • Lack of safety and equality for many
  • Resource depletion
  • Pollution and
  • Climate destabilization

Turning unused collective intelligence into collaborative intelligence to do shared sensemaking and problem solving requires:

  1. clear thinking about intelligence and how people collaborate, and
  2. upgrading the systems we use for collaboratively applying collective intelligence to problems.

What is Intelligence?

When you ask someone what intelligence is, they might answer with something like “the ability to understand things” or “the ability to solve problems” or “knowing a lot.”

If you dig below that, the functions the mind performs to understand, solve problems, and know things is actually a form of work. The mind does a handful of difficult tasks, like:

  • looking for patterns and relationships between things,
  • finding unknowns, or gaps in understanding, and looking for the pieces of information to fill those gaps,
  • applying algorithms like math to estimate or figure out details, and
  • playing out scenarios to look for more or less likely, or more or less preferable results.

These steps are a form of labor, and when this work is done, the person looks smart.

The most accepted measure of intelligence is the ability to solve problems in a standardized IQ test. There are alternative definitions that break this problem solving ability into multiple intelligences. I would argue that intelligence is even more situational. It is directly related to the type of task at hand, and the cognitive tools an individual uses make that particular type of work easier.

Just as someone with a lever or tractor will be able to move rocks more effectively than someone without these tools, someone who has years of conflict resolution training or experience will be able to solve interpersonal problems better than someone who has no exposure to the tools of conflict resolution, regardless of the results of an IQ test. You would notice that the person with the conflict resolution skill is much smarter regarding conflict. If intelligence is defined as the ability to do mental work, training greatly upgrades that ability by providing a set of tools for doing that mental work.

In physics, work is the energy applied to an object via the application of force. The work is measured in Joules (Force times distance) and the force, measured in Newtons, is the ability to get an object with weight moving.

If we think of mental work as intelligence applied to create change in a problem, intelligence is the force, the problem is the mass, the work done is the intelligence applied over a distance, and change is the acceleration of progress on the problem.

To get large masses to move, more people with more tools are required to do the work. If the force applied is too small, the object will not move. No single person can solve the big problems of our time. We need to apply many intelligences, unite many units of force to move these stones.

What is Collaborative Intelligence?

People operating in groups have developed different ways to apply their intelligence collaboratively, much like a group of people moving a stone. We can say that political systems like capitalism or communism are different ways to apply collaborative intelligence.

The process of collaboration used by the people determines the degree to which the collaborators will have their combined potential force moving in the same direction. It also determines how the direction is chosen and whether the direction chosen will meet the long term needs of many of the collaborators. Some collaborative processes do not unite the forces well, and some actually cause the forces to go in opposite directions, with people competitively pushing on opposite sides of the stone. Think of the US political system and party politics.

On the other hand, authoritarian systems can unite the forces of the members but the direction of the force is chosen by a very small number of the members, and so the direction may be contrary to the needs of the members.

Every group, including families, businesses, organizations, cities, states and nations has problems they are trying to solve, and the way the members are united in collaboration around the problem solving determines the success of the problem solving and the happiness of the members.

I would argue that all the major ways we use for collaborating and coordinating mental labor are broken. In all but the smallest egalitarian systems, coming up with ideas and deciding what to do regarding these problems is often done by a small number of people appointed by another small group of people based largely on their allegiance, not on their ability to use the mental tools and do the mental work to solve those problems.

Examples from “democracies” like the US government include:

  • Cabinet, where the president appoints experts to inform him or her about specific topics like Defence, Energy, Labor, etc. These appointees do not need to have any particular expertise other than allegiance to the president, and don’t have any actual power except to counsel the President.
  • Congresspeople are selected from a small number of candidates who were able to develop allegiances to big donors such as corporations, and who usually have very little experience solving serious problems.
  • The president is likewise chosen from a small pool of people who were able to play party politics properly and get funding from the right donors, not because they have particular skill solving problems.

Examples from China are party politics and all political appointments.

Due to the nature of appointments, appointees historically don’t have intentions, perspectives and motivations aligned properly to solve the big problems in ways that address the long view. But even if these appointees had all the right intentions, In the face of the size of these problems, this is a pitifully small number of people who are in turn woefully underpowered to do the volume and type of mental work that is needed. When a wider range of intelligences are aligned on a problem, there is a higher likelihood that the sum of those forces will be in the right direction.

The Solution: A Tool to Optimize Collaborative Intelligence

What is needed is the application of more mental force, more engines of mental work, more intelligence to these problems, and the only real way to apply the large amount of intelligence needed is through a tool built to optimize collaborative intelligence.

This tool has to allow a large number of people to collaborate intuitively and constructively, directing their intelligence toward finding the solution to problems. Specifically, it has to address:

  • The difficulty members of groups face with engagement, idea management, and information overload by providing a platform that simplifies the collecting and sharing, sorting and filtering, and storing and revisiting of ideas and actions steps, and opinions and conversations around these ideas and action steps.
  • The difficulties groups face around decision making, allowing for distributed, fair, informed, and transparent decision making, by making it easy for members to find, prioritize, approve, and reject ideas and action steps.
  • The problem of integration of ideation and action by allowing ideation and action to overlap on the same idea. Action steps must be able to be suggested, discussed, assigned, given potential start and end dates, and approved before the idea is approved.

Forby is a tool that is designed to meet these needs.

We help governments, community members, businesses, and groups collect, store, prioritize, and filter ideas in an intuitive interface.

We help these  groups streamline the ideation and action process by connecting the processes of gathering and sharing ideas and opinions, getting approval or rejection from members, and connecting the ideas with action steps.