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Using Massive Human Brainpower to Develop Robots
street crowd
Crowdsourcing for solutions, not funds. Building robots together
By Tom Green

In distributing a problem to a large group of people— distributed problem solving—you are able to mine collective intelligence, assess quality and process work in parallel.

Crowdsourcing for innovations and solutions for robot development

What if the solution to a particularly knotty or seemingly intractable technical problem in robotics, one that had eluded researchers in their laboratory, was suddenly posed to an online community of, say, 30,000 willing participants? And what if all of that collective intelligence not only solved the problem but did it in record time, say, a few days, maybe less? 

Such group problem solving has long been a staple with the IT crowd (e.g. Eric Raymond’s, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”) and more recently has come to the aid of synthetic biology and biotechnology and other disciplines.

typing computer

Would robotics profit from from such group problem solving?

If it could, would that success spur on the creation of a permanent, crowdsourced robotics community of hundreds of thousands of members ready to apply its collective thought-power to other similarly knotty robotics problems? And would any of that, in turn, hasten the development of robotics?
The brainpower and available time are certainly there aplenty online: every week, people spend three billion hours gaming; devotees of Angry Birds spend three million hours per day playing the game. Per day!

Well, that’s exactly what researcher and crowd enthusiast Adrien Treuille from Carnegie Mellon University did with protein folding, in the process creating his online game Foldit. Gamers using Foldit helped AIDS research scientists solve a 15-year-long problem in ten days. Ten days!

Astoundingly, Treuille reported, “The worst human design was better than the best computer design.” All of which, of course, shouts out that crowdsourcing is a very powerful resource not to be overlooked in any inquiry.

Are crowdsourced solutions the future of science, technology…and robotics?

Crowd-sourced solutions as the future of science was a question broached in the season finale of the PBS TV program NOVA ScienceNOW that showcased emerging technologies. Hosted by David Pogue, New York Times’ Technology writer, ScienceNOW began with the the future of robotics and fifty minutes later ended with Adrien Treuille’s crowdsourcing. If you allow the end of the program to influence the beginning of the program, crowdsourcing of robotics problems jumps right out as must-do, right now.

A good way to begin 2013 is to watch the program for yourself

Well worth the investment of about an hour of video watching is “What Will the Future Be Like?” NOVA ScienceNOW, November 2012 (running time: 52 minutes): 

Watch What Will the Future Be Like? on PBS. See more from NOVA scienceNOW.

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