Group Knowledge and Social Machines

Group Knowledge and Social Machines
S. Orestis Palermos, University of Edinburgh

How do groups store, share, and generate knowledge? Moreover, can groups be intelligent agents in themselves, under which conditions, and what effects may this have on the previous set of questions?

The topic of group cognition has started receiving growing attention within philosophy of mind and cognitivescience. Nevertheless, while theexisting literature focuses on groups that form collective judgments (e.g., List & Pettit, 2006) and intentions (e.g., Tollefsen, 2002), virtually no attention has been directed to groups that collectively know and are justified in believing some proposition p. And yet, Epistemic Group Agents—groups that reason and acquire knowledge by means of collective processes over and above the cognitive processes possessed by their individual members—have played an indispensable role in the progress of the human intellect, were a catalyst to the scientific revolution and have been at the forefront of modern science and economy. A full list of real life examples would include numerous scientific research teams (e.g., the Atlas experiment or Fermilab), business corporations (e.g., BP, Siemens, IBM, etc.), and even intelligence agencies (e.g., FBI, MI5, MI6).

Despite the gap in the existing literature, recent advances within cognitive science, and especially the field of distributed cognition (e.g., (Hutchins, 1996; Theiner, Allen, & Goldstone, 2010)), as well as its intersection with epistemology (Palermos & Pritchard, 2013) and dynamical systems theory (e.g., Palermos, 2014a) can now provide the necessary tools for studying, modeling and even maximizing the epistemic properties of group agents by design. Before anything else, however, the first step in this exciting direction requires that we address certain questions about the process of ‘cognitive integration’ (Palermos, 2014b): How do different cognitive processes get integrated, what is the relation of cognitive integration to the concepts of knowledge and justification, and can it be manifested by both individual- and group-level cognitive systems?

These are some of the questions I will focus on in this talk both from a philosophical and cognitive science perspective while also considering concrete examples from the study of transactive memory systems (Wegner, Giuliano, & Hertel, 1985) and scientific research teams (Giere 2002). In effect this will provide us with a clear grasp of the concepts of Group Knowledge and Epistemic Group Agents (Palermos, forthcoming) that we will then examine how to apply in the case of what Berners-Lee (Dertouzos, Berners-Lee, & Fischetti, 1999) termed ‘social machines’. Specifically, I will review the interesting case of Wikipedia and the worrisome steady decline of its active contributors (Halfaker, Geiger, Morgan, & Riedl, 2012) in order to see whether the previous discussion can be put in practice to a positive effect.


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S. Orestis Palermos

University of Edinburgh