“Citizen science” or “crowd-sourced” science will become increasingly important as a valuable means of harnessing the “world brain” to address critical social, ecological, or cultural issues. For example, many woodland, grassland, and shoreline areas remain to be ecologically assayed in ways that could be done by minimally trained citizen scientists. This could not only lead to benchmarks for species survival and climate change but also to increasing public awareness of the challenges through direct involvement. How can artists, designers, scientists, engineers, and medical researchers forge a lasting and effective alliance to enhance these efforts?
Roberto Molar Candanosa, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
Texas A&M University
“Harnessing the World Brain to Address Urgent, Global Issues” requires access to the minds of billions of people worldwide in an attempt to provide human intelligence to solve tasks that might be too complicated even for the largest computers. This network of brainpower is the global brain, a concept that serves as the namesake for the proposed smartphone app called G-Brain.
Overpopulation is an urgent and global issue closely related to eco-
nomic development, one of humanity’s great challenges. The team viewed economic opportunity and G-Brain as an optimal way to access the global brain. The app seeks to provide technological tools and connectivity as a way to harvest brainpower and enable people worldwide to participate in the knowledge economy. This is an idea that has been implemented in many ways during the past decade or more as access to smart phones has become widespread in many rural areas of the world.
G-Brain, like other apps, would pay people modest amounts of money to contribute their time to different types of projects—some of which could help scientific advancement. The app’s ability to access data from the input of billions of people could be analyzed to develop information that might prove useful when addressing urgent global issues.
Although some team members differed in opinions regarding the ultimate purpose of G-Brain, the team conceded that this app as a business platform that could potentially help developing countries, while making money for the app-maker as well. However, the app is not unlike other platforms that already exist. What the team proposed is enhancing a working prototype that a team member already tested in villages of Africa. G-Brain would use a system similar to the crowd-sourcing Internet marketplace Mechanical Turk, which allows businesses or people to request workers from anywhere in the world. Mechanical Turk enables people to complete repetitive tasks such as analyzing items from shopping receipts, typing text from certain images, or transcribing data—all tasks that currently require human intelligence.
G-Brain would be rolled out the way other phone apps are. The app could facilitate access to people in both developed and developing countries, as long as people are connected to the Internet. G-Brain would be an interface that would allow anyone anywhere to get work that is low paying by U.S. standards. Workers at the other end of the app would choose from various tasks and complete them in exchange for a modest monetary compensation set by the businesses or organizations that want data. G-Brain could be a source of income for people in developing countries. Examples of potential G-Brain workers from developed countries include teenagers or retirees in need of income.
G-Brain would be based on a sustainable model that would ensure a lasting and effective business platform. The human computational power accessed through G-Brain would be inclusive enough to do simple and complex tasks.
While G-Brain could do simple tasks, the app would also be powerful
enough to do more complex tasks. The team envisioned the app to be an asset for fields that yield large amounts of data. For example, a team member described an example in which an app like G-Brain would be helpful based on an experience he had when crunching bioinformatics data with real-human computational power. He said there are all kinds of bioinformatics data that get lost in the literature because they are images of biochemical pathways. The working prototype he described harvested brainpower from African villagers and turned those images into metadata. The villagers were trained to recognize biochemical patterns with a level of accuracy similar to that of doctoral students in the field, but the African workers were paid far less than doctoral students in the United States. That team member also said tasks for which researchers usually struggle to compensate workers would be more accessible with G-Brain, because the app would outsource work to people that could potentially benefit from modest compensations while the company makes a profit.
Other complex instances in which the team envisioned G-Brain could be useful include the following hypothetical situations:
- Using human workers to speed up current methods of analyzing satellite images to locate various things, such as a missing airplane
- Using human workers to facilitate mapping of damaged areas after natural disasters
- Using human workers to count the number of open windows within a given area to analyze relationships between possible air exchange, pollution levels, and incidences of certain diseases
Some tasks with G-Brain would require instant, live interaction between task requesters and workers. For example, a team member suggested that G-Brain could be useful in emergencies where a crisis overwhelms healthcare providers, thus affecting their ability to triage patients effectively. In such a scenario, G-Brain workers would provide instant feedback to help healthcare providers assign different degrees of urgency to patients and decide which patients require immediate assistance.
Depending on the task at hand, G-Brain would need robust computing and user-friendly interfaces to work. But essentially, the app would only need smart phones and Internet to connect data collection requests with workers. Some team members expressed their concern about the feasibility of G-Brain to be used in tasks requiring instant feedback, particularly thinking of workers living in developing countries. However, a member of the
team said connectivity would not be a limiting issue, because smart phone use and Internet access are increasing tremendously fast worldwide. This team member, who is promoting G-Brain, also explained that in rural communities lacking the technology to access G-Brain, groups like Engineers Without Borders or other well-established philanthropic organizations could set up the connectivity needed. Thus, G-Brain would see groups that are already embedded worldwide as strategic partners. And these groups would also serve as points of reference for the urgent and global issues that G-Brain would address.
In conclusion, the team agreed that the G-Brain smart phone app, or something very much like it, would be useful as a way of gathering large quantities of data that require human input.