Ethelo bets on 'collective intelligence' with mass decision-making software
In the Trump-and-Brexit era, can technology harness 'power of better group decision-making'? The Vancouver founder of Ethelo thinks so.
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If you haven't heard of Vancouver lawyer John Richardson, you may have heard of one of some of the projects he's been involved with: before founding the poverty law advocacy group Pivot Legal Society, he articled with Ecojustice, an environmental law charity.
But previously, Richardson was a mathematician — and an idea he conceived during his undergraduate math degree has finally come to term years later.
It's called Ethelo Decisions Inc., and this month the Vancouver social enterprise began selling shares as it expands its online mass decision-making software's reach.
"When you look at a Legislature or Parliament, this is 300-year old technology where you get people in a room — separated by the length of a sword — and have them argue with each other, vote on things occasionally, and run for election every four years," he said in a phone interview. "It's pretty dysfunctional, and we're seeing the results of that dysfunction everywhere around us more and more.
"The root of many of society's problems today is how we make decisions. We need to think about new ways of doing democracy."
But at the time he hatched the concept, he recalled, "The internet then wasn't at the state it is today. So I set it aside and got pulled into Pivot Legal Society, but I was always thinking about the algorithm in the back of my mind."
What Richardson created is a computer algorithm that allows large numbers of people to express their preferences, and the software calculates "millions" of possible decisions to find the most agreeable one for the most people, he explained.
"The Ethelo algorithm then aggregates all that input from all the different participants to rank all the potential decisions, kind of like a search engine," he said, "and it gives a list in order of the likelihood of success … and what's going to get the most buy-in from the group, which outcome more people would support, and which outcomes would divide people."
The online software enables public engagement and voting in which hundreds or even many thousands of people explore background information on a decision that needs to be made, learn what the constraints are on it — for instance, its maximum budget, or a deadline, or legal limits — and offer their ideal solution.
That might sound utopian, but Ethelo's largest client is actually the Government of Canada, albeit for internal decision-making within departments, for instance on staffing, financial decisions, seeking client feedback, or assessing risk.
But Richardson said it's only a matter of time before governments start using "public-facing" versions to receive input, and a non-profit wing of Ethelo has already offered its software for free to other non-profit social issue organizations.
"It's a very comprehensive engagement experience," he said.
But in light of Donald Trump's election upset in the U.S., despite receiving millions fewer votes than his rival Hilary Clinton, or Britain's vote to leave the European Union before that, is there a risk that encouraging governments to conduct real-time, large-scale popular voting could be derailed by fringe movements or so-called "alt-right" extremism?
That's, after all, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's stated reason for abandoning his promise of electoral reform in Canada.
"Our current system is actually more vulnerable to an alt-right takeover than a broadly distributed system," Richardson countered. "It is already possible for a small minority party to come into power and set the agenda in contrast to the will of the vast majority of people.
"If people are presented only with 'yes-or-no' or 'black-or-white' choices on complex problems, it comes down to marketing and campaigning. That doesn't bring any collective intelligence to bear."