“Human Computation” Could Solve Toughest Global Problems

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Human computation could soon solve the world’s most intractable problems.

The human brain is a truly marvelous organic “computer” that can do many things better than even the most advanced chip-based computers today. That said, modern computers can process and store data much faster than even the smartest human beings. This dichotomy has led researchers to consider developing methods to combine human and computer intelligence to solve pressing problems that neither have been able to solve by themselves. This nascent field is called human computation.

Several enterprises focusing on human computation have sprung up over the last few years, and a few (such as Wikipedia) have even developed organically on their own to meet the needs of modern consumers.

A new paper (Human Computation: The power of crowds) that explores the potential of human computation was published in the January 1, 2016 edition of the academic journal Science.

Understanding human computation

In the abstract to their paper, Pietro Michelucci and Janis L. Dickinson offer their take on the emerging new field: “Human computation, a term introduced by Luis von Ahn (1), refers to distributed systems that combine the strengths of humans and computers to accomplish tasks that neither can do alone (2). The seminal example is reCAPTCHA, a Web widget used by 100 million people a day when they transcribe distorted text into a box to prove they are human. This free cognitive labor provides users with access to Web content and keeps websites safe from spam attacks, while feeding into a massive, crowd-powered transcription engine that has digitized 13 million articles from The New York Times archives.”

Wikipedia is highly successful human computation project

The authors point out that the online “encyclopedia” is the best known example of human computation. Although there remain some legitimate concerns about the accuracy of some Wikipedia entries, the collaborative site has become a key, cross-cultural resource for a huge range of information that is used by tens of millions of people every day.

Ongoing projects such as Wikipedia have made clear the potential for human computation systems that can model and address complex, intractable problems (typically found the intersection of economic, environmental and sociopolitical systems).

Moreover, IT researchers have previously demonstrated that human micro-tasking can help solve some complex problems (such as creating the most complete ever map of human retinal neurons), however, the micro-tasking is not sufficient to solve much more complex sociocultural problems. These kind of “wicked” intractable problems involve numerous interacting systems that are also evolving. Furthermore, any potential solution to these problems is likely to have unforeseen consequences (for example, large-scale corruption due to financial aid donated to a country in response to a natural disaster).

Michelucci and Dickinson highlight that new human computation technologies that offer real-time access to crowd-based inputs allow for creating more flexible collaborative environments which are better designed to come to grips with some of these most challenging issues.

New human computation projects, such as YardMap.org, which was launched by the Cornell in 2012 to map global conservation efforts one parcel at a time, offer hope for solutions to these difficult, but often pressing global problems.

Statement from authors

“By sharing and observing practices in a map-based social network, people can begin to relate their individual efforts to the global conservation potential of living and working landscapes,” explains Janis Dickinson, Professor and Director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

She notes that YardMap permits everyone involved to interact and build on each other’s work (something that traditional crowdsourcing does not permit). Dickinson argues that Yardmap is important model for how this kind of bottom-up, socially network can lead to scalable changes in the management of residential landscapes.

Researchers at the Human Computation Institute at Cornell have launched a project to “crowd-power” Alzheimer’s disease research. WeCureAlz.com brings together two microtasking systems into an interactive analytic pipeline to create blood flow models of the brains of mice.

“By enabling members of the general public to play some simple online game, we expect to reduce the time to treatment discovery from decades to just a few years”, commented HCI director and lead author of the new paper, Dr. Pietro Michelucci. “This gives an opportunity for anyone, including the tech-savvy generation of caregivers and early stage AD patients, to take the matter into their own hands.”

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