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Figure – A comic strip by Randall Munroe (at – a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language) about Computational Complexity, the Travelling Salesman (TSP) problem, and – last, but not least – about crowd-sourcing the whole thing into ebay! … LOL

… hey wait, just before you ROTFL yourself on the floor, just check this out. For some problem cases it might just work. Here is one of those  recent cases: Interactive, online games are being used to crack complex scientific conundrums, says a report in Nature. And the wisdom of the ‘multiplayer’ crowd is delivering a new set of search strategies for the prediction of protein structures. The problem at hands is nothing less than protein folding, not an easy one. You can check Nature‘s journal video here. While the online game in question is known as Foldit (link – image below).

Figure – Solving puzzle #48 with FOLDIT, the online game.

There are a lot of consequences with this approach. Here from an article of the Spanish El Pais newspaper (in, Malen Ruiz de Elvira, “Los humanos ganan a los ordenadores – Un juego en red para resolver un problema biológico obtiene mejores resultados que un programa informático“, El Pais, Madrid – August 8, 2010):

[…] Miles de jugadores en red, la mayoría no especializados, han demostrado resolver mejor la forma que adoptan las proteínas que los programas informáticos más avanzados, han hallado científicos de la Universidad de Washington (en Seattle). Averiguar cómo se pliegan las largas cadenas de aminoácidos de las proteínas en la naturaleza -su estructura en tres dimensiones- es uno de los grandes problemas de la biología actual, al que numerosos equipos dedican enormes recursos informáticos. […] Sin embargo la predicción por ordenador de la estructura de una proteína representa un desafío muy grande porque hay que analizar un gran número de posibilidades hasta alcanzar la solución, que se corresponde con un estado óptimo de energía. Es un proceso de optimización. […] Para comprobar su pericia, los científicos plantearon a los jugadores 10 problemas concretos de estructuras de proteínas que conocían pero que no se habían hecho públicas. Encontraron que en algunos de estos casos, concretamente cinco, el resultado alcanzado por los mejores jugadores fue más exacto que el de Rosetta. En otros tres casos las cosas quedaron en tablas y en dos casos ganó la máquina. […] Además, las colaboraciones establecidas entre algunos de los jugadores dieron lugar a todo un nuevo surtido de estrategias y algoritmos, algunos de los cuales se han incorporado ya al programa informático original. “Tan interesantes como las predicciones de Foldit son la complejidad, la variedad y la creatividad que muestra el proceso humano de búsqueda”, escriben los autores del trabajo, entre los que figuran, algo insólito en un artículo científico, “los jugadores de Foldit”. […] “Estamos en el inicio de una nueva era, en la que se mezcla la computación de los humanos y las máquinas”, dice Michael Kearns, un experto en el llamado pensamiento distribuido. […]

Video – Matthew Todd lecture at Google Tech Talk April, 2010 – Open Science: how can we crowdsource chemistry to solve important problems?

The idea of course, is not new. All these distributed human learning systems, started with the SETI at home project (link), originally launched in 1999, by the Berkeley University in California. But I would like to drawn your attention, instead, to some other works on it. First is a video by Matthew Todd (School of Chemistry, University of Sydney). His question his apparently simple: how can we crowdsource chemistry to solve important problems? (above). Second, a well known introductory paper on Crowd-Sourcing by Daren C. Brabham (2008), with several worldwide examples:

[…] Abstract: Crowdsourcing is an online, distributed problem-solving and production model that has emerged in recent years. Notable examples of the model include Threadless, iStockphoto, Inno-Centive, the Goldcorp Challenge, and user-generated advertising contests. This article provides an introduction to crowdsourcing, both its theoretical grounding and exemplar cases, taking care to distinguish crowdsourcing from open source production. This article also explores the possibilities for the model, its potential to exploit a crowd of innovators, and its potential for use beyond for-profit sectors. Finally, this article proposes an agenda for research into crowdsourcing. […] in Daren C. Brabham, “Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving – An Introduction and Cases“, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, London, Los Angeles, New Delhi and Singapore Vol 14(1): 75-90, 2008.

With the ubiquitous use of web-based and wireless Social Networks, people are increasingly using the term “Collective Intelligence“. However, I do have serious doubts they really understand what they meant. Some call it the wisdom of crowds or collective wisdom, others smart mobs, while others wealth of knowledge, world brain and so on. Moreover, turning things worse, there are those also, which tend to see it, or confound it with crowd-sourcing as well as prediction markets. Even if there are some loosely conceptual bridges between all them, it will be probably useful to know that the term was instead been born over the Artificial Intelligence research area, while exploiting stigmergic phenomena (see also Swarm Intelligence) among ensembles of cooperative agents. So what follows is a recent definition provided by Univ. of Alberta, Canada. This entry was added last month (Nov. 2009) at the Dictionary of Cognitive Science (Michael R.W. Dawson, David A. Medler Eds.):

Collective intelligence – is a term that refers to the computational abilities of a group of agents. With collective intelligence, a group is capable of accomplishing a task, or of solving an information processing problem, that is beyond the capabilities of an individual agent.

Collective intelligence depends on more than mere numbers of agents.  For a collective to be considered intelligent, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.  This idea has been used to identify the presence of collective intelligence by relating the amount of work done by a collective to the number of agents in the collection (Beni & Wang, 1991). If there is a linear increase in amount of work done as a function of the number of agents, then collective intelligence is not evident. However, if there is a nonlinear increase (e.g., an exponential increase) in the amount of work done as a function of the number of agents, then Beni and Wang argue that this is evidence that the collective is intelligent.

Collective intelligence is of interest in cognitive science because many colonies of social insects appear to exhibit this kind of intelligence, and this has inspired researchers to explore “porting” such processing to robot collectives. As far as robots are concerned, collective intelligence is exciting because it offers the possiblity of developing systems that are scalable (they don’t get disrupted when more agents are added) and flexible (they don’t get disrupted when some agents are damaged or fail) (Sharkey, 2006).


1. Beni, G., & Wang, J. (1991, April 9-11). Theoretical problems for the realization of distributed robotic systems. Paper presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Sacramento, CA.
2. Sharkey, A. J. C. (2006). Robots, insects and swarm intelligence. Artificial Intelligence Review, 26(4), 255-268.

“I think this participative technology, social software as people call it can transform individual lives, firms, government and it is not all about sort of broad capitalist attitudes. I think it can affect some of the things people really care such as health education education, welfare.”, JP Rangaswami.

Directed by Ivo Gormley, Us Now is a 60 min. documentary about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet. Question is:  In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power? New technologies and a closely related culture of collaboration present radical new models of social organisation. This project brings together leading practitioners and thinkers in this field and asks them to determine the opportunity for government.

[...] People should learn how to play Lego with their minds. Concepts are building bricks [...] V. Ramos, 2002.

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