Genius of Crowds

We already expect hearty collaboration among PhDs and literati. Even in the middle of the Cold War, Soviet and American scientists collaborated in medicine and public health. This year’s biggest breakthrough in science, as profiled by the journal Science, was the reconstruction of a 4.4 million year-old skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, a human evolutionary ancestor, and its environment. According to the editor of Science, “it represents the culmination of 15 years of highly collaborative research. Remarkably, 47 scientists of diverse expertise from nine nations joined in a painstaking analysis of the 150,000 specimens of fossilized animals and plants.”

The age of the internet has allowed unprecedented communication, and interconnection, and now it enables everyday people to cooperate in ways unimaginable even a few years ago. In a bit of a deviation from my previous post criticizing the occasional irrationality and short-sightedness of the American public, here’s a post on the newly tapped potential of the masses.

Every year (for the past nine years) the NYTimes assembles a list of the best ideas of the year. One of my favorites was titled ‘Massively Collaborative Mathematics’. A Cambridge professor posted a difficult math problem–proving the Density Hales-Jewett Theorem, and invited commentors on his post to help solve it.

“The resulting comment thread spanned hundreds of thousands of words and drew in dozens of contributors, including Terry Tao, a fellow Fields Medalist, and Jason Dyer, a high-school teacher. It makes fascinating, if forbiddingly technical, reading. Gowers’s goals for the so-called Polymath Project were modest. ‘I will regard the experiment as a success,’ he wrote, ‘if it leads to anything that could count as genuine progress toward an understanding of the problem.’ Six weeks later, the theorem was proved.”

I read about another, in some ways even more impressive, example of this phenomenon in the Marginal Revolution blog. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) stationed 10 weather balloons at random locations across the United States, and announced a prize for anyone, or any group, who could find the coordinates of all 10 balloons. An MIT group created a website/pyramid scheme attracting thousands of collaborators. As one of the team members explained it, “Each balloon had a value of $4,000. If you came directly to us without a referral, you got $2,000, and the charity got $2,000. If you came with one referral, if one person referred you to us, then you still got your $2,000, the referrer gets $1,000 and the charity gets $1,000. This goes on from $2,000, $1,000, $500, $250, $125, and so on.” The MIT team ended up locating all 10 balloons in under 9 hours.

I’m excited to see what other projects can harness the wisdom of crowds in the future. From Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia, to balloon-finding and scientific collaboration on advanced projects, the potential seems limitless.


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