God, I love saying that headline.
Von Ahn’s Gwap.
Will a computer ever experience the kind of pleasure I derive from saying “Von Ahn’s Gwap,” or will that be reserved for humans?
As The Register notes, a new site was launched this week, by Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, that aims to entice humans into playing simple games that will help computers get smarter. The site, called Gwap (an acronym for “games with a purpose”), is the brainchild of computer scientist Luis von Ahn (who also cofathered the Captcha). “We have games that can help improve Internet image and audio searches, enhance artificial intelligence and teach computers to see,” he explains. “But that shouldn’t matter to the players because it turns out these games are super fun.”
The site includes the already familiar ESP Game, an image-tagging competition that Google previously launched as Google Image Labeler. It’s intended to create computer-readable metadata about pictures to facilitate image searches. And it offers four new multiplayer games:
Matchin, a game in which players judge which of two images is more appealing, is designed to eventually enable image searches to rank images based on which ones look the best
Tag a Tune, in which players describe songs so that computers can search for music other than by title – such as happy songs or love songs
Verbosity, a test of common sense knowledge that will amass facts for use by artificial intelligence programs
Squigl, a game in which players trace the outlines of objects in photographs to help teach computers to more readily recognize objects
One thing the Internet enables, which wasn’t possible before, at least not on anywhere near the same scale, is the transfer of human intelligence into machine intelligence. (Google’s search engine, which aggregates the human intelligence embedded in links, is a great example.) That capability can also, in theory, help train computers to do things that they haven’t been able to do before, such as identify the contents of pictures or make subjective or qualitative distinctions between similar things. If you can get enough people to tag enough photos of mountains as “mountains” in a machine-readable way, then eventually the machine will start to “see” the mountains in images without needing people’s help.
The challenge, of course, is to figure out a way to get people to do these kinds of routine chores – to work for the machine. (Tagging pictures gets old fast.) Amazon’s Mechanical Turk uses small payments to get people to contribute their time to extending computer intelligence. Von Ahn’s Gwap uses the pleasure of gaming as a lure. As Von Ahn says:
Unlike computer processors, humans require some incentive to become part of a collective computation. Online games are a seductive method for encouraging people to participate in the process. Such games constitute a general mechanism for using brain power to solve open problems.
In fact, designing such a game is much like designing an algorithm – it must be proven correct, its efficiency can be analyzed, a more efficient version can supersede a less efficient one, and so on. Instead of using a silicon processor, these “algorithms” run on a processor consisting of ordinary humans interacting with computers over the Internet.
In other words, we become part of the processor, part of the machine. In Gwap and similar web-based tools, we see, in admittedly rudimentary form, the next stage in cybernetics, in which it becomes ever more difficult to discern who’s in charge in complex man-machine systems – who’s the controller and who’s the controllee.
“Human computation doesn’t work unless you have people,” says von Ahn. “That’s why we’ve made the games on gwap.com as fun as possible. We need people.” For the time being, anyway.