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Workshop on Human Computer Interaction for International Development

In chapter 8 of Turing’s Nightmares, I portray a quite different path to ultra-intelligence. In this scenario, people have begun to concentrate their energy, not on building a purely artificial intelligence; rather they have explored the science of large scale collaboration. In this way, referred to by Doug Engelbart among others as Intelligence Augmentation, the “super-intelligence” comes from people connecting.

It could be argued, that, in real life, we have already achieved the singularity. The human race has been pursuing “The Singularity” ever since we began to communicate with language. Once our common genetic heritage reached a certain point, our cultural evolution has far out-stripped our genetic evolution. The cleverest, most brilliant person ever born would still not be able to learn much in their own lifetime compared with what they can learn from parents, siblings, family, school, society, reading and so on.

One problem with our historical approach to communication is that it evolved for many years among a small group of people who shared goals and experiences. Each small group constituted an “in-group” but relations with other groups posed more problems. The genetic evidence, however, has become clear that even very long ago, humans not only met but mated with other varieties of humans proving that some communication is possible even among very different tribes and cultures.

More recently, we humans started traveling long distances and trading goods, services, and ideas with other cultures. For example, the brilliance of Archimedes notwithstanding, the idea of “zero” was imported into European culture from Arab culture. The Rosetta Stone illustrates that even thousands of years ago, people began to see the advantages of being able to translate among languages. In fact, modern English contains phrases even today that illustrate that the Norman conquerers found it useful to communicate with the conquered. For example, the phrase, “last will and testament” was traditionally used in law because it contains both the word “will” with Germanic/Saxon origins and the word “testament” which has origins in Latin.

Automatic translation across languages has made great strides. Although not so accurate as human translation, it has reached the point where the essence of many straightforward communications can be usefully carried out by machine. The advent of the Internet, the web, and, more recently google has certainly enhanced human-human communication. It is worth noting that the tremendous value of google arises only a little through having an excellent search engine but much more though the billions of transactions of other human beings. People are already exploring and using MOOCs, on-line gaming, e-mail and many other important electronically mediated tools.

Equally importantly, we are learning more and more about how to collaborate effectively both remotely and face to face, both synchronously and asynchronously. Others continue to improve existing interfaces to computing resources and inventing others. Current research topics include how to communicate more effectively across cultural divides; how to have more coherent conversations when there are important differences in viewpoint or political orientation. All of these suggest that as an alternative or at least an adjunct to making purely separate AI systems smarter, we can also use AI to help people communicate more effectively with each other and at scale. Some of the many investigators in these areas include Wendy Kellogg, Loren Terveen, Joe Konstan, Travis Kriplean, Sherry Turkle, Kate Starbird, Scott Robertson, Eunice Sari, Amy Bruckman, Judy Olson, and Gary Olson. There are several important conferences in the area including European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, and Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, and Communities and Technology. It does not seem at all far-fetched that we can collectively learn, in the next few decades how to take international collaboration to the next level and from there, we may well have reached “The Singularity.”


For further reading, see: Thomas, J. (2015). Chaos, Culture, Conflict and Creativity: Toward a Maturity Model for HCI4D. Invited keynote @ASEAN Symposium, Seoul, South Korea, April 19, 2015.

Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.

Thomas, J. C., Kellogg, W.A., and Erickson, T. (2001). The Knowledge Management puzzle: Human and social factors in knowledge management. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4), 863-884.

Thomas, J. C. (2001). An HCI Agenda for the Next Millennium: Emergent Global Intelligence. In R. Earnshaw, R. Guedj, A. van Dam, and J. Vince (Eds.), Frontiers of human-centered computing, online communities, and virtual environments. London: Springer-Verlag.

Thomas, J.C. (2016). Turing’s Nightmares. Available on Amazon. http://tinyurl.com/hz6dg2