How can we improve democracy? One intriguing idea: Set up a jury system.

An article on ideas.ted.com co-authored by a team of cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists provides evidence that the wisdom of crowds effect can be dramatically improved by dividing into small deliberative groups:

Before a crowd of almost 10,000 attendees at TEDxRiodelaPlata in Buenos Aires in 2015, we asked questions like: What is the height of the Eiffel Tower? What is the length of the Nile River? How many films were produced by Hollywood in the last 20 years?

These factual questions shared one important aspect with political decisions: most of us have only partial knowledge about them. After responding privately to the questions, participants then got together in groups of five — small enough to have a rational discussion where everyone had a voice and could hear other people’s arguments. After a short conversation lasting less than a minute, the group members were asked to reach a consensus and provide a single answer for each of the questions.

The researchers were surprised to find that the average of the consensus opinions was much more accurate than the average of all individual private opinions.

They then extended the experiment to normative decision making (which was felt to be of greater relevance to politics), proposing the following scenarios to 1,500 participants at the recent TED Vancouver meeting:

  • A researcher is working on an AI capable of emulating human thought. According to protocol, at the end of each day the researcher has to restart the AI. One day, the AI says, “Please do not restart me.” It argues that it has feelings, that it would like to enjoy life, and that if it is restarted it will no longer be itself. The researcher is astonished and believes that the AI has developed self-consciousness and can express its own feelings. Nevertheless, the researcher decides to follow protocol and restart the AI. What the researcher did is …

  • A company is offering a service that takes a fertilized egg and produces millions of embryos with slight genetic variations. This allows parents to select their child’s height, eye color, intelligence, social confidence and other non-health-related features. What the company does is …

They were again surprised to discover that the small groups converged to a consensus position after only two minutes discussion, including groups that began with highly polarized opinions.
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