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Return of the human computers

Return of the human computers

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Published by: Crowdsourcing.org on Dec 04, 2011
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Return of the human computers
Technology and society: The old idea of human computers, whowork together to perform tricky tasks, is making a comeback
Dec 3rd 2011
IT WAS late summer 1937, and the recovery from the Depressionhad stalled. American government officials had stimulus money tospend but, with winter looming, there were few constructionprojects to fund. So the officials created office posts instead. Oneproject was assigned to a floor of a dusty old New York industrialbuilding, not far from Times Square. It would eventually house300 computers
humans, not machines.The computers crunched through the calculations necessary tocreate mathematical tables, then an indispensable reference toolfor many scientists. The calculations were complex and thecomputers, drawn largely from the ranks of New Yo
rk’s poor,
possessed only basic numeracy. So the mathematicians in chargeof the project worked out how to break each calculation down into
simple operations, the outcomes of which could be combined togive a final result.It was a technique that had been employed for decades acrossAmerica and Europe. The field of human computing even had itsown journal and trade-union representation. Computing officescalculated ballistics trajectories, processed census statistics andcharted the course of comets. They would continue to do so untilthe 1960s, when electronic computers became cheap enough toconsign the profession to history.Until recently, that is. Over the past few years, human computinghas been reborn. The new generation of human computers carryout different tasks, but they mirror their predecessors in manyother ways. They are being drafted in to perform tasks thatcomputers cannot. They are employed in large numbers and areorganised into streamlined workflows. And, as was the case in theage before electronic computers, their output is combined togenerate results that could not easily be produced in any otherway.In one proof-of-principle experiment, published earlier this year,human computers were used to create encyclopedia entries. Likeperforming mathematical calculations, this is a skilled job, butone that can be broken down into simpler parts, such as initialresearch, writing and editing. Aniket Kittur and colleagues atCarnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania createdsoftware, known as CrowdForge, that manages the process. Ithands out tasks to online workers, which it contacts viaMechanical Turk, an outsourcing website run by Amazon. Theworkers send their work back to CrowdForge, which combinestheir output to produce surprisingly readable results.Several American start-ups are operating similar workflows.CastingWords breaks audio files down into five-minute segments
and farms each out to a transcriber. Each transcription isautomatically bounced back to other workers for checking and,once deemed good enough, an (electronic) computer combinesthe segments and returns the finished product to the customer.At CloudCrowd a similar system is used to co-ordinate teams of human translators. Others are combining human and artificialintelligences. An app called oMoby, produced by IQ Engines, canidentify objects in images snapped by iPhone users. First itapplies object-recognition software, which may not be able tocope if the lighting is poor or the image was captured from anunusual angle. When that happens, the image is sent to a humananalyst. Either way, the user gets an answer in half a minute orso.Much more is to come. In old-fashioned computing offices,workflows were co-ordinated by senior staff, oftenmathematicians, who had worked out how to deconstruct thecomplex calculations the computers were tackling. Now siliconforemen such as CrowdForge oversee human computers. Thesealgorithms, which co-ordinate workers by plugging intoMechanical Turk and other online piecework platforms, arerelatively new and are likely to get considerably moresophisticated. Researchers are, for example, creating software tomake it easier to assign tasks to workers
or, to put it anotherway, to program humans.Eric Horvitz, a researcher a
t Microsoft’s research labs in
Redmond, Washington, has considered how such software couldbe put to use. He imagines a future in which algorithms co-ordinate an army of human workers, physical sensors andconventional computers. In the event of a child going missing, forexample, an algorithm might assign some volunteers to searchduties and ask others to examine CCTV footage for sightings. The

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