Tuesday, February 10, 2009

using games to solve real-world problems

Excerpts from John Ferrara's blog:

"Josh Klein, for his master’s thesis at NYU Klein invented a device that, through operant conditioning, trains crows to gather coins and drop them into a slot. The device then disburses peanuts as a reward, like a vending machine. It’s a fantastically efficient arrangement, since he only needs to keep the machine stocked and the crows take care of the rest.

This is formally described as “synanthropy”, adapting animals to work within human environments. But I think it’s an awesome demonstration of an even larger strategy: getting an organism to do a useful job while pursuing an unrelated goal. The crow doesn’t share our interest in money, it’s just trying to get some peanuts.

Luis Von Ahn applies the same strategy to solve difficult computational problems, using human beings as crows. A researcher at Carnegie Mellon, he’s developed a series of “Games with a Purpose” that surreptitiously gather useful metadata while engaging players in 2-person online computer games. As with Klein’s crows, the players are pursuing their own goal — in this case to have a bit of fun. But through the games’ design, they create a byproduct that has real value. All of the games attach human meaning to data that machines can’t read."

Luis Von Ahn's homepage:

"When we think of games as being specifically unproductive, we’re missing the opportunity to engage users at a level beyond what can be achieved in more conventional interfaces.

In fact games can serve as catalysts of production. Take fold.it, which is a puzzle game that challenges players to find the best ways to fold proteins. This is in fact among the most difficult problems in modern biology, as a protein can take on very different characteristics depending upon its shape. For example, mad cow disease is caused by proteins that already exist in the body, but which have been folded into irregular shapes that make them agents of the disease.

People who play fold.it are actually contributing to science, because the game uses the real physical properties of the proteins as its rules. Players are awarded points for things like reducing the size of the protein efficiently, or turning certain types of molecules so they all face inward. The New York Times notes that it’s plausible that by playing this game, you could actually win a Nobel prize (even if you know nothing of biochemistry)." -- John Ferrara


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