5 Mind Blowing Things Crowds Do Better Than Experts
There's nothing stupider than a crowd. Take an average, intelligent person and put him in an emergency and he'll likely remain calm and await instructions. Put him in a crowd and he'll start screaming, looting and overturning cars. Right?
Well ... not really. That's why we have crowdsourcing.
"Crowdsourcing" is one of those business buzzwords that actually represents something very simple: letting crowds of strangers do your work for you. But it's not just about convincing a bunch of bored people to do grunt work for free -- when you see what the masses of untrained non-experts are capable of when they put their heads together, it's almost magical.
Learning War Tactics From War Gamers
Obviously, no random StarCraft or Tower Defense-playing teenager is going to know more about military strategy than a trained professional with combat experience. The rules are completely different and, well, those are just games, right?
But what if you created a war game that mimicked the "rules" of actual war -- the units have the same capabilities of actual units, the map is similar to an actual map and all of the real-world complications have to be dealt with. And let's say you let hundreds of players -- untrained people just like you -- play it for weeks and months. Is it possible that, in a big enough pool of players -- some of whom are of above average intelligence and many of whom are a little bit crazy -- that you'd wind up inventing creative strategies that not even veteran military leaders would come up with?
It would be like Ender's Game, but with more homoerotic subtext.
It's not just some war gamer geek's dream -- the military is betting on it. Meet MMOWGLI, aka Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet. MMOWGLI is a game with a purpose: fighting pirates. And not just any pirates -- Somali pirates, the modern scourge of the sea.
Look at them, circumnavigating your DRM and not giving a fuck about copyright.
The U.S. Navy wanted creative tactics to defeat the pirates, as well as ways to anticipate what a notoriously unpredictable enemy would do next. So why not throw the scenario out to the crowd in the form of a video game, effectively getting hundreds of people to run the simulation over and over and over again? You have hundreds of gamers playing through these encounters from different angles, providing far more examples to study than the real world could ever supply.
We understand all of these words, but the sentences are giving us some difficulty.
The way that this game works is you get to play as either the pirates or the anti-pirate task force. And it's realistic down to the finest detail -- if you're on the anti-pirate side, you have to deal with "... the logistics of arming ships, the likelihood of pirate attacks and the financial, jurisdictional and temporal difficulties of military action to support commercial shipping and cruise ships." Pirate players have to come up with detailed attack plans, and anti-pirates have to work through the logistics of hostage rescue if they succeed.
"Shit, it's boobsmcgee900!"
In some ways, it's the super-realistic, micro-managing game that hard core RTS players have been asking for since the 1980s. And you're playing alongside members of the military, there to make sure people aren't just cheating their way to victory ("What? The pirates could have aimbots!").
It's one of those ideas that is so ridiculous that it makes perfect sense. The same weaknesses in security that players notice in the game will be noticed by the pirates in real life. What you lose due to a lack of realism, you make up for with sheer volume. Oh, and the players are all doing it for free.
When you've cleared the oceans and confiscated their parrots, tell them who sent you.
Turning Gamers Into a Human Science Machine
You may have seen a recent headline about how gamers solved a molecular puzzle that had baffled scientists. The program that did it was another example of the sheer power of this massive untapped resource known as "bored video game players." Gamers spend nearly three billion hours a week playing video games, and would spend more if we had more games. That means that no matter how tedious the task, you can throw millions of unpaid man hours at it, at any time ... if you can just turn it into a game.
The most prominent crowdsourced gamer projects right now are Foldit and Phylo, efforts by scientists to solve a couple of daunting problems with understanding DNA. And when we say "daunting," we mean they tend to make supercomputers burst into flame.
They can win at chess and Jeopardy!, but our blood is just too much to handle.
Foldit came about as a way to help scientists figure out how proteins fit together. Basically, imagine you had an impossibly complicated jigsaw puzzle where the pieces, instead of fitting into a two-dimensional picture, had to fit together in three dimensions. That would up the complexity many times over, to the point that even a supercomputer couldn't crunch through all of the possible combinations. Ah, but turn it into a game, where players have to figure it out for themselves? Now you've got something.
Finally, science has harnessed the vast power of bachelors and marijuana.
So, when you play Foldit, they show you a couple of proteins (the building blocks of DNA -- the pieces of the puzzle) and you have to try and make them fit (or "fold") together, using the same "rules" by which the proteins are bonded in real life. Players are eventually going to land on the most intuitive and efficient way to fold the proteins, and that gives science a pretty damned good idea of how nature does it. Then they can program that method into their software and use it to analyze others. The combined strategies employed by the thousands of gamers create the algorithm.
Players have already modeled an enzyme that could help cure AIDS (the final boss).
Phylo, meanwhile, works in a similar way to solve a different problem. To a player, it's a simplistic game that involves moving blocks to create rows of color. What the player may not even know is that each block actually represent bits of genetic code, and that they're helping solve a complex problem that scientists don't have the computing power to work through.
They're all too busy playing Bejeweled, obviously.
When analyzing DNA, finding bits of similar sequences is hugely important -- it tells you a lot about how that particular trait evolved. But since your genetic makeup is coded with up to 25,000 distinct genes made up of three billion base pairs, sifting through all that shit to find similar strings is next to impossible. That is, unless you dump that raw data in front of a bored gamer and say, "It's a new puzzle game! Find the similar strings and you'll get the high score!"
If you beat this level, you win the "Not Dead Yet!" achievement.
Unfortunately, the three billion hours we spend gaming isn't nearly enough -- at a TED lecture, one expert said the time needed to solve these issues is 21 billion hours a week, or seven times our current rate. So get that homework shit done so you can get to work on your games, kids. Science needs you.
When You Use reCAPTCHA, You're Translating Old Documents
If you have signed in to basically anything on the Internet these days, then you're most likely familiar with the whole CAPTCHA program. That's the thing where you have to prove you're not a spambot by typing some nearly unreadable words into a box:
Well, this is awkward.
What you may not know is that by using it, you've most likely contributed to the translation of thousands of old documents.
In 2009, Google and a couple of other companies had a problem. They wanted to digitize years of old newspapers and books, using software that can "read" the print it's scanning and then convert it into actual text. But even the most advanced computers had problems reading some of the poor quality scans, because the text was smudged or crooked, or in a font that has been out of use for years.
We remember the Smudgy Smear font came packaged with Windows 3.1.
So, they simply placed those unreadable words in between you and your porn, and told you that you'd need to translate them before going any further. Spambots can't read them because reCAPTCHA uses only the words that the computers already said they couldn't read. It's as brilliant as it is simplistic. The program is called reCAPTCHA, and you've probably seen it this week, if not today. It's currently used by Facebook, Ticketmaster, Twitter, 4chan, CNN.com, StumbleUpon, Craigslist, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration and thousands of other smaller sites.
"We'll put lines through them, too. Because fuck nearsighted people."
And the project is a huge success, managing to digitize 20 years of The New York Times daily newspaper in just a few months, by letting Web surfers decode the hard bits. It is estimated that websites display 200 million reCAPTCHAs a day.
Over the years, we've managed to get the word "dongs" into the NYT editorial column 17 times!
The Crowd Beats the Experts ... Over and Over Again
Now, we don't want to give the impression that all of these crowdsourcing tasks are about farming out manual labor grunt work. If you do it right, you can get better decisions on complex issues by asking a crowd than you can by asking a few experts.
However, simple questions like "Where should we eat?" will take hours to argue out.
Some of the best examples of this involve cases where the crowd didn't know they were being asked a question at all. Back in 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, the stock market immediately reacted by selling the stocks of the four main contractors that were involved in building the spacecraft. But experts noticed something odd in the buying and selling habits of all of those millions of traders. Three of the contractors' stock saw only minor losses, ending the day with an average loss of 3 percent. Yet the fourth company, an outfit called Morton Thiokol, had their stock end down by a whopping 12 percent.
It was clear that the investors blamed them (or their components) for the accident, even though the news coverage had in no way fingered them as the culprit. The press did have some rumors about what caused the accident, but no one was implicating Thiokol above any of the other companies. It took a Washington blue ribbon commission six months to figure out that, sure enough, Morton Thiokol was responsible. It took the faceless mass of investors one day.
Our methods of prediction involve a financial paper, a bear and wild flailing. We're all millionaires.
Experiments have been done on this from several angles, and the results are always remarkable. You remember the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" (you saw it if you were watching TV in the same room as your grandmother). It was a quiz show where if you got stuck on a question, you had three options for help. You could eliminate two of the four possible answers, raising your odds to 50/50, you could phone an expert or you could ask the audience to vote on the right answer.
This gives us a unique opportunity to study who has the better scores, the "experts" or the audience. So James Surowiecki, author of the book The Wisdom of Crowds, actually ran the numbers. The results? While the experts got the answer right about 65 percent of the time, which is a respectable score, the audience -- made up of random dumbasses who waited in line to watch a game show -- managed to get the correct answer a shocking 91 percent of the time.
If these questions were posed over the Internet, half the audience would answer "FIRST" and the other half would call them fags.
And it doesn't just work for trivia questions, either. One researcher asked a group of 56 people how many jelly beans were in a jar. And while some people guessed way too low, and some guessed way too high, they all averaged out and guessed 871, only 21 beans higher than the actual amount.
Well, we guess this proves that millions of people can't be wrong and Twilight is the best book of our generation.
This is why you can't dismiss "prediction markets" like Intrade, where the crowd basically bets money on outcomes for everything from elections to geopolitical events. Huge corporations now use such prediction markets to make decisions, including Google, which details the predictions in this blog post. They know what they're doing, right?
Using the Crowd to Solve ... Everything
Some groups just aren't satisfied with using you and thousands of strangers to tackle one or two issues. Some groups want to solve it all.
Take Zooniverse, for example. Any scientific project with a crowdsourcing goal can open up shop on their site and gain access to the half million people they have registered as members. They currently have about 10 major active projects with goals that range from having volunteers read through actual 100-year-old ship logs from the royal English Navy to creating a online map of the galaxies.
Here we're discovering a planet, soon to be named Bonaas9000.
But what about all that time you spend away from your computer, selfishly living your life instead of helping out the cause? Is there a way you can pitch in without, you know, actually doing anything?
Actually, yes. The World Community Grid is looking to take advantage of all that downtime your computer has by putting it to work on something meaningful. Through a simple download, whenever your computer starts to go into idle or sleep mode, they will borrow your computer's processing power to try to save the world.
Finally, a use for our Cheetos 2 a.m. crash time.
They currently have more than half a million PCs forming one huge distributed computing hive mind super computer, tackling aspects of the human genome, HIV, muscular dystrophy, cancer and clean energy. Users are automatically opted in to all of these projects, but you can choose to opt out of ones you find disagreeable.
"I WILL STAY AWAKE ALL NIGHT TO STOP YOU FROM CURING CANCER."
For more on crowds getting it done (or not), check out The 25 Most Nonsensical Protest Signs and The 8 Most Ridiculously Badass Protesters Ever Photographed.