The Long and "Silent Subway Ride" of the Future

Topic: Evaluating the Ubiquitous Human Computer

Jonathan Zittrain:  Well, I think a lot of computer scientists have been thinking about what they call ubiquitous computing, the idea that with really good bandwidth and wireless at that, and fast processors, there’ll be computers everywhere, more than just in your lap on a laptop or in a Hallmark card when you open it and it sings you happy birthday.

I’m interested in a counterpart to that, which I think of as ubiquitous human computing.  And that is a trend that’s just starting to get ramped up, where we start to think of the human mind as if it were a server.  As if it were a commodity that you could throw at a problem and ramp up by just investing a little bit more money in your project.  And we see this in three layers, each of which has an example company at work and each example of which is really interesting to me.  I like these companies, I like all three of them.  But in total, I see reason to, I don’t know, be bemused about what’s happening.

At the top level of this phenomenon, is a company like InnoCentive.  InnoCentive was started by a big pharmaceutical concern, to create a marketplace for companies, like itself, that might have engineering or scientific problems to solve that aren’t exactly Nobel Prize worthy, but are more complicated than just something you could send downstairs and to be able to take those problems, describe them, and put a bounty on their solution--$15,000 to the first person somewhere in the world that can create a molecule that has the following characteristics.  It smells like this and it’s machine washable.  And there’s a race on then among those who tend to troll that site—a lot of unemployed chemical engineers, among others—and somebody comes up with the answer, submits it, it’s validated, collects $15,000, and in exchange, it’s as if he or she ever had the idea.  That becomes the property--lock, stock, and barrel—of the company that commissioned it for the money, big money, that it paid for it.

So that’s sort of on the high end of putting problems out for solution, where you’re basically indifferent to who’s solving the problem, what their motives are, anything else.  You may not even meet them or correspond with them; you just get a solution for your money that required a human brain in the middle.

Then one notch down, there’s a company like LiveOps.  LiveOps, from what I can tell, is extremely successful, and it’s a company that will employ anyone in America, at the moment, who can get through its test.  And the test is administered automatically over its website, a number of questions, reading comprehension, kind of like a mini SAT test, and other languages, if you’ve got them, are tested.  And then they also test your computer outfit, do you have a decent internet connection, do you know how to use your PC, more or less, and a working headset. 

And of many, many people who might apply on one end, only a few fall out after hours of the tests on the other end ready to be, I wouldn’t say hired by LiveOps, because they won’t be employees, but in a working relationship with them, like contractors.  And then it’s almost like a video game.  You’re in the privacy of your own home, maybe you’ve got your kid in the playpen next to you, you turn on your LiveOps account, and where do you want to go today?  Well, maybe when you first start, it’s just taking pizza orders, and you click, you’re given a script, an identity, suddenly you’re working for Pizza Hut and then someone calls what they think is Pizza Hut, it gets routed to your living room, you say, “Welcome to Pizza Hut,” you take the order, you type it in, you click send, and boom, it goes back out to the local Pizza Hut from the person calling, and the pizza gets delivered.

This is an interesting way of working, because it gives you enormous freedom, you can be in your own home, you can plug in or out after every single call.  You can work as much or as little as you like.  But it also is a lot of, if not constraint, surveillance.  The calls and interactions are recorded.  There are all sorts of metrics applied, so you’ll be told if you’re keeping up on the number of calls per hour that is expected for this range.  And then as you succeed at the little tasks, you get onto more and more complicated tasks.  LiveOps said that when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the American Red Cross came up with an 800 number that people could call for information, try to find relatives.  Of course, the American Red Cross didn’t have enough people to staff it, and turned to LiveOps.  LiveOps immediately, boom, sent out the word and those LiveOps agents who were working at that moment all could transform themselves into American Red Cross representatives.

That’s the middle zone.  The zone below that is represented by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.  This is a service whereby for maybe a penny, or a nickel, tasks that are repetitive, often boring, but that still require a human brain of some kind in order to complete, are put out for bid. And anyone with a Mechanical Turk account can perform the tasks.

So you might be asked to look at a picture and identify what you see in the picture and type in the keywords of what you see.  You might be told to go to a website and interact with it in a certain way.  Go to this blog and leave a comment with what you think.  Go to this review site and leave a positive review, must be five out of five stars.  That actually happened, was discovered, and the company behind it roundly denounced for astro-turfing.

And when you put these three things together, I think what you start to see is a way of harnessing mental energy in action that we just didn’t have before.  That can be very empowering, but it also makes me think about how easily one could put out the call to call your member of congress, tell them how much you hate or like healthcare reform.  And that call would be indistinguishable from that of any regular constituent, because you are a regular constituent.

You’ve just been primed by Mechanical Turk to do it, you then report on your call, maybe even send a transcript or a recording along and you get paid your nickel or your quarter or whatever else.  And that starts to mean that any mass movement becomes suspect, because we have no idea how it was motivated or who was asked.  Now, maybe word could get out that that was going on, but, as it happens more and more, it’s not clear how scandalous it would be, it’s just another set of tools used, just like we expect today that there will be television commercials aired or testimonials from people who have been prescreened on one issue or another.

So as we enter a world in which I imagine a subway car, which everybody in the car is basically traveling in silence, staring at a screen or talking quietly into something, and some of them are engineers, hoping to earn their $15,000, some of them are LiveOps people checking in with their white collar skills, and others are latter day mental click worker sweat shoppers doing one nickel task at a time.  I look at that subway car and I see a very different configuration than the one we have today, even if most people are silent, listening to their iPods.  So it’s a phenomenon worth keeping an eye on.

Recorded on August 18, 2009

As companies learn the advantages of third-party, virtual labor, Jonathan Zittrain believes that the human mind is becoming commodified as a sort of "ubiquitous computer." Here the Harvard Law professor provides examples of this trend and weighs in on its likely impacts.

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:

Credit: fergregory via Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
  • Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
  • This study could help better identify time of death.
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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

Credit: Mike Workman/Adobe Stock
Personal Growth
  • Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
  • Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
  • It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
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