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Space Peas and Holy Toast: Why Pattern Recognition is Humanity’s Killer App

February 15th, 2012 by

microtask_holy_toastPeople are strange. We look for faces and animals in clouds, we spot Michael Jackson in a greasy roasting dish, and we pay tens of thousands of dollars for pieces of toast that resemble the Virgin Mary (personally, I think it looks more like Michael Jackson, but I admit that I am not a qualified toast inspector).

This compulsion to find meaningful images in random information is known as Pareidolia. Though it may seem like a useless and potentially dangerous handicap to our thinking, in fact Pareidolia is a key part of one of humanity’s most useful abilities: pattern recognition.

Pattern recognition is the key to some of our greatest achievements as a species, from language and music to Where’s Wally. Now it’s becoming even more important, as it becomes clear just how advanced our ability is, and how difficult it is to create software that can emulate it. This, of course, is where human computing and Microtask enters the picture.

Rise of the human machines

The current boom in human computing, signaled by Microtask’s recent success at the Red Herring awards, puts pattern recognition at the frontier of the tech industry. I’ve written in the past about the limits of artificial intelligence and the ongoing war between human and machine translators (spoiler alert: humans are still winning, but only just). This, along with the success of Digitalkoot in correcting machine recognition errors, shows just how far computerized pattern recognition has to go before it can rival the average human brain.

But as well as letting us prove our mastery over the machines by thrashing computers in translation races (which, incidentally, may be a bad idea if you take the threat of a robot uprising seriously), crowdsourced data processing projects are raising exciting questions about how powerful our pattern recognition powers become when we work together as a crowd.

All they were saying, was give Peas a chance

We’ve mentioned the Galaxy Zoo project before, and its ongoing mission to classify hundreds of thousands of images of galaxies with the help of a crowd of volunteers. But an unexpected discovery on the Galaxy Zoo forum provides a great example of what can happen when a crowd of people combine their pattern recognition skills. Members reported strange green blobs resembling peas, floating in the corners of the images, and a whimsical thread called “Give Peas A Chance” snowballed into a major astronomical discovery.

At first the peas were assumed to be insignificant errors in the images, but after a campaign on the Galaxy Zoo forum put pressure on the supervising astronomers, investigation revealed them to be a previously unknown type of compact galaxy. Astronomers gave the crowd credit for the discovery and showed their gratitude by officially naming these mysterious galaxies ‘Peas’.

The Galaxy Zoo crowd’s ability to notice unexpected anomalies shows where human pattern recognition is supreme. A computer would not have noticed the peas, as they were not part of the focal problem. However, sadly, for every Space Pea there is a slice of Holy Toast, and human pattern recognition’s strength (the ability to detect patterns and deduce meaning) is also its weakness (it can lead to people detecting patterns in meaningless noise).

This is where the power of the crowd can make a difference. Noticing the peas was only the first step: The Galaxy Zoo forum provided a venue for discussion which allowed the wisdom of crowds to get to work. We are used to seeing projects use the crowd to verify results like we do at Microtask. But the Galaxy Zoo discovery shows the potential of human computing to deal with more complex problems. My guess is that in 2012 we will start to discover just how much we can achieve with our powers combined.

My advice to Newt: use the crowd

February 9th, 2012 by

microtask_newtEver since he exploded onto our screens as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters, it was clear (at least to 8 year olds like me) that Newt Gingrich would one day go places.

True to my (utterly fictitious) predictions, if you read the news at the moment there is no escaping him and his good friend Mitt Romney. This is important for us, because if Newt is successful, crowdsourcing may soon be a matter of National Security: the new President’s life may just depend on it.

The reason for this is that the White House is not the only place Newt has his eye on. In January Mr. Gingrich said that he would, if elected, create a base on the moon by 2020. Now, I don’t know if Newt has seen the trailers for Apollo 18, but if he has he will know that before he goes anywhere near the moon, he should make sure there are no aliens up there, lurking in the shadows of a crater, waiting to attack him.

Newtralizing alien threats
Fortunately for Newt, a plan has been developed by a couple of scientists over at Arizona State University. Paul Davies and Robert Wagner put forward a paper last year suggesting the Search for Extra Terrestrial Life (SETI) program should be supplemented by scanning the surface of the moon for signs of visitors from another planet. The idea is that any traces left by aliens making a pit stop on the lunar surface would be preserved by the moon’s minimal atmosphere.

The pair proposed that images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) could be categorized by image scanning algorithms then distributed over the internet for a crowd of enthusiasts to look at. Any suspicious objects found this way could then be sent on to experts for further analysis.

The LRO has already mapped about 5.7 million km². Unfortunately the images have a rather distant maximum resolution of half a meter per pixel, so finding anything smaller than a campaign bus is going to be quite tough.

This got me thinking about another comment Newt has recently made, about how he would like to mine the moon after the base is established. You see, while the photos may not be detailed enough to make out any spaceship keys or baseball caps that aliens accidentally dropped, what they might reveal is lucrative looking mineral deposits.

Not only might such mineral discoveries fund Davies’ and Wagner’s crowdsourcing idea and the eventual cost of the moon base, it may even help Newt boost his campaign fund, which could make all the difference when up against the deep pockets of Mitt Romney.

The land that time forgot: How crowdsourcing can help bring Cuba into the 21st Century

February 6th, 2012 by

microtask_crowdsourcing_cuba_2With its beautiful crumbling buildings and vintage motor cars, spicy culture and rich history, few countries excite the imagination like Cuba.

Over the Christmas break I visited this tiny island that occupies such a large place in world culture and history. Explaining the country of Castro is probably impossible, but triumphant Socialism or the white sandy beaches of Varadero are far from the reality. Day-by-day Cuba revealed itself exciting, surprising and often disappointing.

Paper to the people
One thing that struck me – aside form the complete lack of consumer choice – was the amount of bureaucracy involved in… pretty much everything, from getting a seat on a bus to accessing the internet.

As a socialist country Cuba is buried in paperwork (which may explain the shortage of toilet paper); what makes it crazy is that all that work is mostly done in vain.

As you might have heard, Cuba is one of those places where the use of the web is highly regulated. Only few selected people can obtain a connection (mostly those hosting tourists), and prices are so prohibitive that even without explicit restrictions, very few locals could afford one. We are talking prices in the order of 5 times the average monthly salary for an evening-only dial-up connection, so not exactly 100MB-per-second optic fiber.

What’s more interesting is that not even official or state-run activities seem to use any kind of intranet to coordinate their revolutionary efforts. Everything is scribbled on little pieces of paper that end up in a closet somewhere, forever forgotten. In the whole island I couldn’t find evidence of a single database where data could be cross-referenced. For a tourist, this means that you don’t know if the bus coming in 2 hours will have a free seat: you just wait and see. For Cubans, it probably means a life of unnecessary grind against an unfriendly and highly inefficient bureaucracy.


Hasta la crowd-victoria
Add these observations to the incredibly high unemployment rate among all age groups, I came to two conclusions. First: aside from the obvious goal of granting freedom of speech to all their citizens, Cuba needs reliable, fast and affordable internet connections at least as a way to provide its citizens with work. Second: crowdsourcing could play a big part in this process.

Cuba has a high level of education, so transcriptions from paper to digital formats could be a bit of a waste of potential in this specific case. But when the choice is between doing that and hanging around your front door from dusk till dawn, the decision seems easy. The concepts of crowd labor and microwork are wide enough to appeal to people of all ages and educational backgrounds.

Although Cuba is a fascinating country to visit, actually living there probably isn’t. Ordinary Cubans are crying out for the opportunities most of the world takes for granted. With some decent internet access, crowdsourcing could help kickstart this process (there is definitely no shortage of paper forms that need transcribing). It could be the start of a much needed second revolution.

From millions of tasks to thousands of jobs: Bringing digital work to the developing world

February 1st, 2012 by

microtask_m2workEvery country in the world has probably benefited in some way from the unprecedented access to knowledge and services brought about by the digital revolution. But producing the knowledge banks and services has so far been a predominately rich-country business. The world’s poorest countries have generally not been able to participate in the production side of the digital economy and share in its rewards. This is changing, however, and an initiative lead by the World Bank’s infoDev program is helping to shape the change.

As the digital economy grows, it increasingly gives rise to work that is “born digital” – that is, new work that arises out of the possibilities and needs of the digital world. This phenomenon is distinct from how conventional jobs are increasingly digitized in the sense of making heavy use of information and communication technologies. Most born-digital work represents new work that doesn’t directly compete with old occupations.

For example, hundreds of thousands of people around the world earn income from tasks like moderating images posted by users to an online community, categorizing products on an e-commerce site, and transcribing digital video clips to make them more searchable. Because these tasks are completely digital, they can be physically carried out anywhere where a computer can be connected to the Internet.

A recent trend is that demand for such digital blue-collar work is satisfied through so-called “crowdsourcing” and “microsourcing” models. This means that instead of a company hiring a staffer or a contractor to carry out a job, the job is broken down into individual tasks and distributed to a large pool of workers over a digital network.

For example, many companies post their tasks on Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), a digital labor marketplace. At any given time AMT carries around 200,000 microtasks, each worth from a few cents to several dollars. Anyone wishing to earn this money can simply point their web browser to AMT and follow the instructions. Microwork is inclusive in that gender, disability and other personal characteristics do not play a role in selection on digital labor marketplaces.

The World Bank’s mission is to reduce poverty in the world, and its infoDev program got interested in the potential of digital microwork to provide employment to poor people in developing countries. In 2010, I was commissioned by infoDev to co-author a report to assess this and related issues, titled Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy.

According to the report, microwork has several features that make it particularly accessible to people in developing countries. Most tasks require few skills or qualifications, as they rely on the fact that humans are inherently better than computers at tasks like image recognition and natural language processing. Microwork is relatively disintermediated, meaning that it is not necessary to find employment at a local business process outsourcing company to tap into the market – a web browser is enough. Low labor costs moreover give a competitive advantage to workers from developing countries.

Many microworkers are indeed located in the developing world. According to one survey, 34 percent of workers on AMT are from India. Two other microwork distributors, Samasource and MobileWorks, have workers in countries such as Kenya, Pakistan and the Philippines. Workers access the tasks from computers in Internet cafés and offices, and earn income in the form of cash, bank deposits and gift cards. In these low- to medium-developed countries, digital microwork seems to be having a real economic impact.

Least-developed countries would have the most to gain from tapping into this source of digital export income. However, their ability to do so is limited by their digital infrastructure: the availability of computers and Internet cafés from which to access digital labor markets.
But even the most underprivileged people in the world increasingly have access to mobile phones. There are over 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world, and over half a billion in India alone. In 2011, mobile phone penetration reached almost 80 percent in the developing world. In the near future, typical mobile phones in the developing world will start to resemble personal computers in terms of features and Internet connectivity.

m2Work is an online challenge conducted by infoDev and IdeasProject, with funding and support from UKaid and the Government of Finland. The aim of the challenge is to identify problems and needs that could be addressed by tapping into microworkers who use mobile phones – enabling the bottom of the economic pyramid to access the digital economy, and enabling the rest of the world to benefit from their intelligence.

Challenge participants are asked to come up with ideas for mobile phone applications that link problems that could be tackled by microwork with microworkers located in the developing world. The best ideas are awarded cash prizes of up to $20,000 and supported in various ways with a view towards their eventual realization as, for example, startup companies. The slogan of the challenge is, “From millions of tasks to thousands of jobs”.

What would you do with a mobile workforce of millions? Submit your idea for a chance to make it reality.

Banking on one another: Can the crowd save itself from the banks?

January 26th, 2012 by

microtask_crowdsourced_loansFirst they lend too much, cause a financial meltdown and need bailing out. Now they don’t lend enough (unless share-options and fat bonuses count as lending). As any former Wall St inhabitant, election-year politician or self-respecting Hollywood celebrity will tell you: banks are pure evil.

Personally, I quite like the banking system as a whole. Swiping a little plastic card in exchange for a pile of food is my favorite magic trick. Still, there’s no doubt the current system could be improved. And, you guessed it, crowdsourcing may be able to help, by offering an alternative way for people to borrow and lend money.

Models for (spare) change
A variety of crowd-based alternatives now provide ways for people to lend money to each other for profit, sidestepping the banks. As banks continue to clamp down on lending, these companies are seeing enormous growth.

The exchange begins with borrowers proposing an amount they want to borrow. Then, much like crowdfunding, lenders contribute to the loan until it reaches its goal and the borrower gets their money. Some companies like RateSetter automatically link lenders and borrowers by the rates they want. Others like Funding Circle, which specializes in funding for small businesses, allow lenders greater control.

Despite their growth, peer-to-peer (P2P) lending only accounts for around $270 million of lending in the US. Such a measly amount is nowhere near sufficient to meet demand caused by banks’ current unwillingness to lend.

The reasons for the small numbers (when did 270 million become a small number?) are numerous. There’s understandable reluctance from customers to manage their own lending. Crowdbanking (or maybe “distributed lending” anyone?) must also overcome unfriendly regulation, vested interests and an entrenched banking system that we still depend on even if it does go a little crazy now and then.

Law of the lever(age)
Ultimately, traditional banking has a key advantage over distributed lending: leverage. Because of its P2P model, the distributed lenders only lend as much money as their members put in. Corporations and banks can leverage capital to effectively create money out of thin air. Of course, this may be a good thing: the absence of leverage means P2P lenders can’t inflate themselves into oblivion and cause economic meltdowns.

So, are we on the cusp of a banking revolution, or is it just a flash in the pan? Assuming the hurdles mentioned above can be overcome, the question, I think, will come down to convenience and reliability. If P2P lending and borrowing is more economic than using a bank, and becomes as easy as bidding on eBay, why wouldn’t it catch on? With Google and Facebook already tinkering about with transaction services and even their own currencies, the stage is set for the shift in thinking that may enable this change. And we know that big things can happen when people tap the power of the crowd.

Of course, if it all collapses, we can always fall back on a system of barter. Which will be good for plumbers and carpenters, but not so good for us at Microtask (you try bartering microtasks in exchange for a cheeseburger at 1am).

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