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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Genius of the Masses

Crowdsourcing and the rise of the collective

In science as in nowhere else, the maverick is revered. “Eureka!” shouts Archimedes, leaping from the bath. Galileo gazes into the heavens, and down falls Newton’s apple. Darwin sits in an English study and dreams of Galapagan finches, while Einstein revolutionises physics from a patent office.

This is the story we tell ourselves about science. Now, it may be due an update.

What comes next? You?

We know that the internet has revolutionised the way we connect. We will be branded as the social media generation, born of the information age. But in science, a far quieter revolution is taking place: that of the rise of crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing is the fragmentation and re-distribution of complex tasks, where problems or endeavours that would usually require immense effort on behalf of a few are made manageable by the harnessing of crowds.

We find striking examples in astronomy, where the immense volume of data gathered by telescopes is too great for professional astronomers to process. Projects have sprung up in response to the information overload, allowing amateurs and their computers to analyse data. NASA’s SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, at www. seti.org) creates a global supercomputer by letting anyone volunteer their computer’s idle processing power. This analyses data from radio telescopes, searching through celestial noise in search of extra-terrestrial signals.

Other ventures are more interactive. The Hubble Galaxy Zoo (www.galaxyzoo.org) project asks you to view online photos of galaxies taken by the Hubble telescope and classify the galaxy type shown. The site guides classification with a series of simple multiple choice questions. “Is the galaxy smooth and rounded? Is there a bulge at the centre? Is there any sign of a spiral pattern?” The site layout is intuitive and engaging and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Its findings have lead to the publishing of 25 papers and the discovery of a new galaxy type.

In biology, too, crowdsourcing is becoming a significant force. The Zoological Society of London has released the Instant WILD app, sending out images of animals snapped by motion-sensitive cameras in conservation areas to the general public, who are collectively able to identify animals in real time.

The game Foldit (www.fold.it/portal/) takes a biological problem too complex to be solved efficiently by computers—that of discovering the shapes created when proteins fold—and passes it on to the public in the form of a game. Understanding protein structure is crucial for developing targeted HIV and cancer drugs.

Other enterprises involve sending out photos for description to allow the blind to ‘see’ in real time, identifying endangered fish in Toronto, mapping the spread of radiation across Japan post-quake, and aggregating and filtering twitter posts to warn of oncoming earthquakes. The possibilities of crowdsourcing as a scientific tool are just beginning to be realised, and it is clear that they are vast.

In nature, crowdsourcing finds parallel between the hives of bees and the mounds of termites. As we pool some part of our intellectual processing power for the good of the collective, we in turn become part of something greater. Will it change us? Will games like Foldit lead to higher scientific interest and literacy? We look at the stars, our computers whir and buzz, and the hivemind of human knowledge grows. As do the bees.

With the rise of the crowdsourcing movement, the ‘scientist’ becomes anyone with a computer and a few spare minutes. As Clay Shirky writes, crowdsourcing has become the solution to the problem of the “cognitive surplus”; the “unused potential of 6.7 billion people”. Rather than using our spare time and idle RAM to passively consume media, we can become active participants in some of the most interesting and vital projects of our age.

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