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Monday, September 04, 2006

Gaming with a Purpose

In the above video, Luis von Ahn demonstrates how groups of human minds can be utilised as a distributed processing network. Professor von Ahn illustrates the potential for human processing by providing these statistics :
  • 9 Billion Human-Hours of Solitaire were played in 2003.
  • The Empire State Building took only 7 Million Human-Hours to construct.

To clarify, the term 'Human-Hours' equates to the measureable time unit that our species commits to a certain undertaking, for example mowing the lawn may take 1 Human-Hour, a week's time at work may take 40 Human-Hours and persuading your girlfriend that computer games are worth trying cannot be measured in Human-Hours.

Professor von Ahn has teamed up with Google to put these 'wasted' Human-Hours to good use, and to encourage people to work for free. How does he intend to do this? By designing computer games of course! In the video, Professor von Ahn describes three games - ESP Game, Peekaboom and Verbosity. All of which are 'fun' to the extent that they can be proven to have been played for significant, multiple sessions. The games are free, and all of the data collected by the games can be transformed into metadata to be associated with Google images. If you want to know more about the games, watch the video.

I'm in two minds about all of this. On the one hand, these games are allowing for humans to dedicate their leisure time to the futherance of the species, however minor that progression may be, collecting metadata can have a knock-on effect upon development in other areas. For example, the information collected from Peekaboom can allow the 'training' of an AI to develop their own image recognition skills, thus furthering their capacity for intelligent behaviour. The potential benefits for the visually impared is breathtaking, if all of the images of the web came with captions that a software aid for the blind could read, browsing could become an experience closer to what a healthy eye percieves of the internet.

If solitaire can be deemed as a waste of time, what does that say for our highly esteemed computer games? Would Professor von Ahn like us to all stop playing Half Life 2 so that we can help society from our sweaty sanctums? To that I say nay. Addictive and fun his games may be, but until a data collecting tool with added joy capabilities can compete with the sense of time and place, the immersion, the thrill, the intrigue, the potential for new ways of thinking about life, about people, about the world; until my brain can be mined by reticulated splines, I'll be sticking with our games.

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