Group Knowledge

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 first set of questions, above? These are philosophically motivated considerations whose multidisciplinary investigation can have key economic, social and cultural benefits. 

Contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science has recently turned its focus on the fundamental ways in which interaction with our social and technological environment can affect our intellect, under the rubric of embedded and extended cognition. In general, this research is highly pertinent to epistemology, whose focus has traditionally been on the cognitive process of knowledge-acquisition. But of special interest is the fact that it can further account for 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. 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). 

While Epistemic Group Agents 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, they have long gone unnoticed due to the lack of the appropriate theoretical background. Recent advances within philosophy of cognitive science and cybernetics, however, and in particular the fields of distributed cognition and systems theory and dynamics, can now provide the necessary tools for studying, modeling and even maximizing their epistemic properties by design. Moreover, even though such research can clearly profit from a purely theoretical approach on the basis of the above disciplines, it can also benefit from a focus on several historical and contemporary case studies, originating from the fields of the history and philosophy of science and economics (see also Eidyn's A History of Distributed Cognition pilot project). 

Remarkably, understanding how knowledge can be acquired by groups on the basis of collective reasoning processes can have a multitude of far-reaching applications, especially within modern society where the means for communication and distributed information-processing become increasingly abundant, due to the rapid advancement of technology. Accordingly, this interdisciplinary project, which is designed to bring together experts from the humanities and social and mathematical sciences can have, in return, a wide theoretical impact that will range over such disparate fields as epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics and political theory, amongst others. In addition, however, it also has the potential to generate several practical applications, of which two obviously profitable examples can be:

1.    The engineering of a new series of programmes that have traditionally aimed at knowledge-acquisition, such as: 

•    Internet search engines
•    Music Databases
•    Video Databases
•    Online Encyclopedias

The design of such knowledge-oriented programmes that aim at pooling information from the social domain and redistributing it to the individual can undergo a radical transformation. Instead of merely updating themselves by tracking the activity of their users, such programmes could provide users with the appropriate means to actively contribute to the database. The outcome will be powerful web 2.0 human-machine programmes that will instantiate the properties of epistemic group agents.  

2.    The development of Enterprise 2.0 knowledge management programmes that will allow business, scientific and, in general, all kinds of social organizations to operate as integrated epistemic group agents, maximizing in effect their potential outputs.

In summary, this is a pilot project that draws on the strengths of the University of Edinburgh in the humanities and social sciences, epistemology and philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and aims at bringing expertise from such diverse fields as philosophy, computer science, cybernetics, systems theory and dynamics, economics, group dynamics, information systems and technology, business administration and public policy under a major research programme whose aim will be to capture, study, design and explore the potential theoretical and technological impact of group knowledge and its underlying processes.   



Project team: 
  • Project Leader: Dr S. Orestis Palermos
  • Project Members: Dr J. Adam Carter, Prof Jesper Kallestrup, Prof Duncan Pritchard
Project duration: 
3 years
Funded by Eidyn/PPLS