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“Secret sauce” that makes crowdsourcing work? Human computation

Posted February 20, 2016

Now, if the term “human computation” got you thinking of the room full of people scribbling tedious mathematical tables – that’s not it. Neither is it “The Matrix” kind of situation, where a bunch of humans are hooked up into one machine to generate bioelectricity for super powerful AI (creeeepy!). Although, and perhaps a little disturbingly, both pictures could help explain “human computation” to a certain degree.

The global "matrix". CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

The global “matrix”. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Yes, humans were, in fact, the very first computers themselves. According to Wikipedia – which, FYI, is a very good example of human computation – the first time the term “computer” was used was February 3, 1853, when an obituary in The New York Times described “Mr. Walker” as “an accomplished Astronomer and a skillful Computer.” (Compute + -er, as in “one who computes” – it’s that simple!).

Since that time, however, people have gotten good at outsourcing many repetitive and boring tasks (such as mathematical calculations) to programmable machines. Ironically, the machine-computers seem to be ready to return the favor.

Early "computers" at work, summer 1949. NACA (NASA), Public Domain.

Early “computers” at work, summer 1949. NACA (NASA), Public Domain.

As computers get smarter, their weak spots are also becoming evident. One of these is, for example, inability to think ahead and solve tasks creatively, rather than testing every possible solution. Humans, on the other hand, are very good at that sort of thing, providing, of course, they are not otherwise engaged in dull time-consuming tasks that a simple computer program could do.

That’s why humans and computers make such a good team. Leaving the computers to do what they do best, like running tedious numerical algorithms, frees up extra time and brain power for us to do something a little more human-like. This could be, for example, coming up with creative solutions for climate change. Incidentally, a computer could, in many cases, run these ideas as simulations, giving us a clue of how they might turn out. Humans could then continue to build upon such knowledge and come up with even better solutions.

People are thus acting as “human computers” yet again, by “computing” the tasks that are too tough for actual computers, like looking through pictures of cancer cells or far-off galaxies to find subtle differences, or documenting the collective knowledge of the world, as is the case of Wikipedia. Not least is the fact that the Web-based technology allows thousands, if not millions, to connect and collaborate in such systems at any one time, allowing collective intelligence to thrive.

The idea of the “new generation” of human computation, in which humans and computers form complex ecosystems able to solve the toughest problems of the world, has recently been discussed a Science article by researchers at the Human Computation Institute and Cornell University.

Dr. Pietro Michelucci, director of the Human Computation Institute, defines human computation as “the secret sauce that makes crowdsourcing work”. According to him, human computation is a “cheat” in a way that instead of trying to create even smarter AI, “we let machines do the things they do best, like counting or tracking things, and give the really hard jobs to people. Turns out that in many cases this is an effective combination.”

The full interview with Dr. Michelucci about what human computation means today can be followed here:


Written by Eglė Marija Ramanauskaitė

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