Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Algorithms of Tom Sawyer

Remember Mark Twain's story about how Tom Sawyer got his friends to paint Aunt Polly's fence for him and even got them to pay for the privilege. It’s a good thing they still teach it in school.

Now imagine if Tom were a computer. A machine could use similar techniques to get people to do its work for it. If that sounds hard to believe, consider Luis von Ahn's ESP Game. It is an online game in which two randomly selected players are simultaneously shown an image and asked to list words that describe the image. The two players do not know each other and cannot communicate. For each word that the two users agree on, they gain points. Von Ahn later licensed the game to Google and Google uses it to improve the accuracy of Google Image Search. Like Tom Sawyer's fence painting, the ESP game is fun and players don’t mind that Luis and Google get to keep all the truck loads of money they make from the resulting intellectual property.

What should be noted here is that while Google's machines are very good at storing and processing more data than most people can even begin to imagine, they are not very good at understanding what is in a picture. So the machines get humans to do this work for them. Like von Ahn says in this talk at Google, it gives a much better reason for the machines in the Matrix to keep us humans around, unlike the machines in Terminator 3 who would rather just get rid of us.

For now though, it is a symbiotic relationship. Both parties benefit by bringing their relative strengths to the table. Humans are not just using machines anymore. It is nothing new really. We humans as a species have evolved to have a symbiotic relationship with machines much like any other symbiotic relationship in the natural world. Image, if one fine day, all the machines in the world disappeared into thin air. Again, not a pretty thought.

Although the relationship has been symbiotic for quite some time, it’s only now that we are beginning to come to terms with it. Thinking of humans a component of the system, rather than something above it, forms the basis of an emerging paradigm called Human-Based Computing. The key to designing a successful human based system is to figure out innovative ways to make people want to do something that they would otherwise consider a chore. And we have a lot to learn from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

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