Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Playing or Processing?

What if the game you were playing was actually accomplishing some work?

From The Economist:

One example is The ESP Game, created by Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University, in which two players on the internet try to label the same picture, and score points whenever they use the same word to describe it. Besides being addictive, the game serves a useful function: helping to index images on the web more accurately. Dr von Ahn and his team have generated several games to harvest “human computation”, as he calls it, some of which are just as captivating as The ESP Game.

Of course, it is also possible to use money to motivate people to do computing tasks, as in Amazon's Mechanical Turk project, which pays participants a few cents to complete simple tasks such as categorising websites for potential advertisers. But Dr von Ahn argues that play may be a more powerful incentive. People play billions of hours of solitaire each year, he says, but it took only 20m man-hours to build the Panama Canal.

Labelling images may be an enjoyable pastime and serve a useful purpose, but it is hardly an intellectual challenge—unlike the puzzles that online gamers regularly solve, often through team effort that requires strategic thinking. Clearly the potential of games to solve tough scientific problems has barely been tapped. The challenge is to create games that make solving such problems fun.
Speaking of solving tough scientific problems, the Seattle PI reports on a new game that is doing just that:
Prompted by Baker and Salesin's idea, Zoran gave his graduate students the job of coming up with a game that could combine the best talents of computers and human visual reasoning. The result is Foldit, which users can download for free and learn to play in about 20 minutes. So far, more than 40,000 people are playing the game and helping advance the science of protein folding.

The study of the 3-D nature of proteins is called "protein folding." Baker and his colleagues at the UW are big players in the world of protein folding and have been pushing computers to help them with the overwhelmingly complex task of puzzling out what makes these critical molecules tick. They had started a distributed computing program called Rosetta@home (modeled after the SETI shared-computer scheme to search for signs of extraterrestrial life) in which home computers get temporarily "hijacked" to help Baker with big number-crunching protein analysis tasks.

"But people were contacting us and saying the computer was clearly doing the wrong things," Baker said. He mentioned this on a hike with UW computer scientist David Salesin, who suggested maybe he should make it an interactive game so people could help the computer.
The idea of utilizing game play for real work is a very intriguing one. Just think about how many hours are being spent playing Grand Theft Auto and how much could be accomplished if all that time spent could be turned into useful work.

I keep trying to come up with a good idea for a game that could be utilized for some other purpose, but unfortunately the thing that keeps popping into my head is Ender's Game. I wonder if you could take advantage of virtual worlds like the Sims or WoW to test out the impact of different government policies before actually implementing them.

This concept could also be used on the physical side of games, as demonstrated by PlayPump who makes merri-go-rounds that pump clean safe water for use in Africa.


Joseph Dart said...

Somewhat along those lines:

Salesin thought so, too—in fact, he thought protein folding would make a terrific computer game. That's why he'd set up this lunch. Baker, thinking about the intense focus he'd seen on the face of his preteen son when playing videogames, agreed.

The game they came up with, Foldit, doesn't have orcs or quests or gravity hammers. It simply serves up a multicolored knot of spirals and clumps—a 3-D render of a protein. Players use the cursor to grab, bend, pull, and wiggle the chain of amino acids anywhere along its length, folding the protein into its optimum shape. The only rules are based on physics—opposite charges attract, atomic bonds have limited angles of rotation, and the parts of the molecule that stick to water tend to point outward. The closer your model's properties adhere to those rules, the more points you get.

Joseph Dart said...

er ignore me, I meant to link to this post somewhere else but copy-pasted into the wrong window ...

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