Category Archives: Citizen Science

Do your physical therapy and act as a citizen scientist at the same time

I gather that recovering from a serious injury and/or surgery can require exercise regimens which help strengthen you but can be mind-numbingly boring. According to a Feb. 23, 30217 New York University Tandon School of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), scientists have found a way to make the physical rehabilitation process more meaningful,

Researchers at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering have devised a method by which patients requiring repetitive rehabilitative exercises, such as those prescribed by physical therapists, can voluntarily contribute to scientific projects in which massive data collection and analysis is needed.

Citizen science empowers people with little to no scientific training to participate in research led by professional scientists in different ways. The benefit of such an activity is often bidirectional, whereby professional scientists leverage the effort of a large number of volunteers in data collection or analysis, while the volunteers increase their knowledge on the topic of the scientific endeavor. Tandon researchers added the benefit of performing what can sometimes be boring or painful exercise regimes in a more appealing yet still therapeutic manner.

The citizen science activity they employed entailed the environmental mapping of a polluted body of water (in this case Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal) with a miniature instrumented boat, which was remotely controlled by the participants through their physical gestures, as tracked by a low-cost motion capture system that does not require the subject to don special equipment. The researchers demonstrated that the natural user interface offers an engaging and effective means for performing environmental monitoring tasks. At the same time, the citizen science activity increased the commitment of the participants, leading to a better motion performance, quantified through an array of objective indices.

Visiting Researcher Eduardo Palermo (of Sapienza University of Rome), Post-doctoral Researcher Jeffrey Laut, Professor of Technology Management and Innovation Oded Nov, late Research Professor Paolo Cappa, and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Maurizio Porfiri provided subjects with a Microsoft Kinect sensor, a markerless human motion tracker capable of estimating three-dimensional coordinates of human joints that was initially designed for gaming but has since been widely repurposed as an input device for natural user interfaces. They asked participants to pilot the boat, controlling thruster speed and steering angle, by lifting one arm away from the trunk and using wrist motions, in effect, mimicking one widely adopted type of rehabilitative exercises based on repetitively performing simple movements with the affected arm. Their results suggest that an inexpensive, off-the-shelf device can offer an engaging means to contribute to important scientific tasks while delivering relevant and efficient physical exercises.

“The study constitutes a first and necessary step toward rehabilitative treatments of the upper limb through citizen science and low-cost markerless optical systems,” Porfiri explains. “Our methodology expands behavioral rehabilitation by providing an engaging and fun natural user interface, a tangible scientific contribution, and an attractive low-cost markerless technology for human motion capture.”

Caption: NYU Tandon researchers reported that volunteers who performed repetitive exercises while contributing as citizen scientists were more effective in their physical therapy motions. In the experiment, the volunteers controlled a small boat monitoring the polluted Gowanus Canal by performing hand and arm motions using the Microsoft Kinect motion capture system. Credit: NYU Tandon, PLoS ONE

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A Natural User Interface to Integrate Citizen Science and Physical Exercise by Eduardo Palermo, Jeffrey Laut, Oded Nov, Paolo Cappa, Maurizio Porfiri. Public Library of Science (PLoS) Published: February 23, 2017

This paper is open access.

The role of empathy in science communication has a Dec. 12, 2016 essay by Nicole Miller-Struttmann on the topic of empathy and science communication,

Science communication remains as challenging as it is necessary in the era of big data. Scientists are encouraged to reach out to non-experts through social media, collaborations with citizen scientists, and non-technical abstracts. As a science enthusiast (and extrovert), I truly enjoy making these connections and having conversations that span expertise, interests and geographic barriers. However, recent divisive and impassioned responses to the surprising election results in the U.S. made me question how effective these approaches are for connecting with the public.

Are we all just stuck in our own echo chambers, ignoring those that disagree with us?

How do we break out of these silos to reach those that disengage from science or stop listening when we focus on evidence? Particularly evidence that is increasingly large in volume and in scale? Recent research suggests that a few key approaches might help: (1) managing our social media use with purpose, (2) tailoring outreach efforts to a distinct public, and (3) empathizing with our audience(s) in a deep, meaningful way.

The essay, which originally appeared on the PLOS Ecology Community blog in a Dec. 9, 2016 posting, goes on to discuss social media, citizen science/crowdsourcing, design thinking, and next gen data visualization (Note: Links have been removed),

Many of us attempt to broaden our impact by sharing interesting studies with friends, family, colleagues, and the broader public on social media. While the potential to interact directly with non-experts through social media is immense, confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret and share information that supports one’s existing beliefs) provides a significant barrier to reaching non-traditional and contrarian publics. Insights from network analyses suggest that these barriers can be overcome by managing our connections and crafting our messages carefully. …

Technology has revolutionized how the public engages in science, particularly data acquisition, interpretation and dissemination. The potential benefits of citizen science and crowd sourcing projects are immense, but there are significant challenges as well. Paramount among them is the reliance on “near-experts” and amateur scientists. Domroese and Johnson (2016) suggest that understanding what motivates citizen scientists to get involved – not what we think motivates them – is the first step to deepening their involvement and attracting diverse participants.

Design Thinking may provide a framework for reaching diverse and under-represented publics. While similar to scientific thinking in several ways,

design thinking includes a crucial step that scientific thinking does not: empathizing with your audience.

It requires that the designer put themselves in the shoes of their audience, understand what motivates them (as Domroese and Johnson suggest), consider how they will interact with and perceive the ‘product’, and appeal to the perspective. Yajima (2015) summarizes how design thinking can “catalyze scientific innovation” but also why it might be a strange fit for scientists. …

Connecting the public to big data is particularly challenging, as the data are often complex with multifaceted stories to tell. Recent work suggests that art-based, interactive displays are more effective at fostering understanding of complex issues, such as climate change.

Thomsen (2015) explains that by eliciting visceral responses and stimulating the imagination, interactive displays can deepen understanding and may elicit behavioral changes.

I recommend reading this piece in its entirety as Miller-Struttmann presents a more cohesive description of current science communication practices and ideas than is sometimes the case.

Final comment, I would like to add one suggestion and that’s the adoption of an attitude of ‘muscular’ empathy. People are going to disagree with you, sometimes quite strongly (aggressively), and it can be very difficult to maintain communication with people who don’t want (i.e., reject) the communication. Maintaining empathy in the face of failure and rejection which can extend for decades or longer requires a certain muscularity

The Future of Federal Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing; a Nov. 15, 2016 event at the Wilson Center (Washington, DC)

I received this Oct. 25, 2016 notice from the Wilson Center in Washington, DC (US) via email,

Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing, a form of open innovation that engages the public in authentic scientific research, has many documented benefits like advancing research, STEM education and addressing societal needs. This method has gained significant momentum in the U.S. Federal government in the past four years. In September 2015 the White House issued a memorandum asking federal agencies to report on their citizen science and crowdsourcing projects and appoint coordinators within each agency. In 2016 we witnessed the launch of, a platform with an extensive toolkit on how to conduct these projects as well as a catalog and community hub. In addition to these Executive Branch initiatives, a grassroots Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS) has emerged with 300 members across 59 agencies. The Science and Technology Program (STIP) at the Wilson Center has played a role in encouraging this momentum, providing support through building a cartographic catalog of federally supported citizen science and crowdsourcing projects and through extensive research into some of the legal, administrative and intellectual property concerns for conducting projects within the Federal government.

However, a new Administration often brings new priorities, and it’s vital to preserve this momentum and history for new leadership. STIP conducted interviews with twelve representatives of the Federal Community of practice and Agency Coordinators and conducted desk research to compile 10 strategic recommendations for advancing federal policies and programs in citizen science and crowdsourcing to facilitate the transfer of knowledge on this incredible momentum.

Please join us for a discussion of these recommendations, a celebration of the history of the movement and a dialogue on the future of citizen science and crowdsourcing in the Federal government.

The speakers are:

Elizabeth Tyson

Co-Director, Commons Lab/Program Associate, Science and Technology Innovation Program

Anne Bowser

Co-Director, Commons Lab/ Senior Program Associate, Science and Technology Innovation Program

David Rejeski

Global Fellow

The logistics:

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
1:30pm – 3:00pm

5th floor conference room

Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Phone: 202.691.4000

You can register here and you can find the Wilson Center Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog here.

In the past, there would be livestreaming of these events but I didn’t see a notice on the event webpage.

Help find some siblings for the Higgs boson

This is the Higgs Hunters’ (or HiggsHunters) second call for volunteers; the first was described in my Dec. 2, 2014 posting. Some 18 months after the first call, over 20,000 volunteers have been viewing images from the Large Hadron Collider in a bid to assist physicists at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research).

These images show how particles appear in the ATLAS detector. The lines show the paths of charged particles travelling away from a collision at the centre. Volunteers are looking for tracks appearing 'out of thin air' away from the centre. (Image: CERN)

These images show how particles appear in the ATLAS detector. The lines show the paths of charged particles travelling away from a collision at the centre. Volunteers are looking for tracks appearing ‘out of thin air’ away from the centre. (Image: CERN)

A July 6, 2016 news item on announces the call for more volunteers (Note: Links have been removed),

A citizen science project, called HiggsHunters gives everyone the chance to help search for the Higgs boson’s relatives.

Volunteers are searching through thousands of images from the ATLAS experiment on the website, which makes use of the Zooniverse  citizen science platform.

They are looking for ‘baby Higgs bosons’, which leave a characteristic trace in the ATLAS detector.

This is the first time that images from the Large Hadron Collider have been examined on such a scale – 60,000 of the most interesting events were selected from collisions recorded throughout 2012 – the year of the Higgs boson discovery. About 20,000 of those collisions have been scanned so far, revealing interesting features.

A July 4, 2016 posting by Harriet Kim Jarlett on Will Kalderon’s CERN blog, which originated the news item, provides more details,

“There are tasks – even in this high-tech world – where the human eye and the human brain simply win out,” says Professor Alan Barr of the University of Oxford, who is leading the project.

Over the past two years, more than twenty thousand amateur scientists, from 179 countries, have been scouring images of LHC collisions,  looking for as-yet unobserved particles.

Dr Will Kalderon, who has been working on the project says “We’ve been astounded both by the number of responses and ability of people to do this so well, I’m really excited to see what we might find”.

July 4, 2016 was the fourth anniversary of the  confirmation that the Higgs Boson almost certainly exists (from the CERN blog),

Today, July 4 2016, is the fourth birthday of the Higgs boson discovery. Here, a toy Higgs is sat on top of a birthday cake decorated with a HiggsHunter event display. On the blackboard behind is the process people are looking for - Higgs-strahlung. (Image: Will Kalderon/CERN)

Today, July 4 2016, is the fourth birthday of the Higgs boson discovery. Here, a toy Higgs is sat on top of a birthday cake decorated with a HiggsHunter event display. On the blackboard behind is the process people are looking for – Higgs-strahlung. (Image: Will Kalderon/CERN)

You can find the Higgs Hunters website here. Should you be interested in other citizen science projects, you can find the Zooniverse website here.

Weather@Home citizen science project

It’s been a while since I’ve featured a citizen science story here. So, here’s more about Weather@Home from a June 9, 2016 Oregon State University news release on EurekAlert,

Tens of thousands of “citizen scientists” have volunteered some use of their personal computer time to help researchers create one of the most detailed, high resolution simulations of weather ever done in the Western United States.

The data, obtained through a project called Weather@Home, is an important step forward for scientifically sound, societally relevant climate science, researchers say in a an article published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The analysis covered the years 1960-2009 and future projections of 2030-49.

Caption: The elevation of areas of the American West that were part of recent climate modeling as part of the Weather@Home Program. Credit: Graphic courtesy of Oregon State University

Caption: The elevation of areas of the American West that were part of recent climate modeling as part of the Weather@Home Program. Credit: Graphic courtesy of Oregon State University

The news release expands on the theme,

“When you have 30,000 modern laptop computers at work, you can transcend even what a supercomputer can do,” said Philip Mote, professor and director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University, and lead author on the study.

“With this analysis we have 140,000 one-year simulations that show all of the impacts that mountains, valleys, coasts and other aspects of terrain can have on local weather,” he said. “We can drill into local areas, ask more specific questions about management implications, and understand the physical and biological climate changes in the West in a way never before possible.”

The sheer number of simulations tends to improve accuracy and reduce the uncertainty associated with this type of computer analysis, experts say. The high resolution also makes it possible to better consider the multiple climate forces at work in the West – coastal breezes, fog, cold air in valleys, sunlight being reflected off snow – and vegetation that ranges from wet, coastal rain forests to ice-covered mountains and arid scrublands within a comparatively short distance.

Although more accurate than previous simulations, improvements are still necessary, researchers say. Weather@Home tends to be too cool in a few mountain ranges and too warm in some arid plains, such as the Snake River plain and Columbia plateau, especially in summer. While other models have similar errors, Weather@Home offers the unique capability to improve simulations by improving the physics in the model.

Ultimately, this approach will help improve future predictions of regional climate. The social awareness of these issues has “matured to the point that numerous public agencies, businesses and investors are asking detailed questions about the future impacts of climate change,” the researchers wrote in their report.

This has led to a skyrocketing demand for detailed answers to specific questions – what’s the risk of a flood in a particular area, what will be future wind speeds as wind farms are developed, how should roads and bridges be built to handle extremely intense rainfall? There will be questions about heat stress on humans, the frequency of droughts, future sea levels and the height of local storm surges.

This type of analysis, and more like it, will help answer some of those questions, researchers say.

New participants in this ongoing research are always welcome, officials said. If interested in participating, anyone can go online to “” and click on “join.” They should then follow the instructions to download and install BOINC, a program that manages the tasks; create an account; and select a project. Participation in is available, as well as many others.

I checked out the About page on the website, which hosts the Weather@Home project, is a volunteer computing, climate modelling project based at the University of Oxford in the Environmental Change Institute, the Oxford e-Research Centre and Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics.

We have a team of 13 climate scientists, computing experts and graduate students working on this project, as well as our partners and collaborators working at other universities, research and non-profit organisations around the world.

What we do

We run climate modelling experiments using the home computers of thousands of volunteers. This allows us to answer important and difficult questions about how climate change is affecting our world now and how it will affect our world in the future. is a not-for-profit project.

Why we need your help

We run hundreds of thousands of state-of-the-art climate models, each very slightly different from the others, but still plausibly representing the real world.

This technique, known as ensemble modelling, requires an enormous amount of computing power.

Climate models are large and resource-intensive to run and it is not possible to run the large number of models we need on supercomputers.

Our solution is to appeal to volunteer computing, which combines the power of thousands of ordinary computers, each of which tackles one small part of the larger modelling task.

By using your computers, we can improve our understanding of, and confidence in, climate change predictions more than would ever be possible using the supercomputers currently available to scientists.

Please join our project and help us model the climate.

Our Experiments

When first started, we were running very large, global models to answer questions about how climate change will pan out in the 21st century.

In addition, we are now running a number of smaller, regional experiments, under the umbrella of weather@home.

BOINC uses a volunteer computing platform called BOINC (The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing).

BOINC was originally developed to support SETI@home, which uses people’s home computers to analyse radio signals, searching for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

BOINC is now used on over 70 projects covering a wide range of scientific areas, including mathematics, medicine, molecular biology, climatology, environmental science, and astrophysics.

Getting back to Oregon State University and its regional project research, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Superensemble Regional Climate Modeling for the Western United States by Philip W. Mote, Myles R. Allen, Richard G. Jones, Sihan Li, Roberto Mera, David E. Rupp, Ahmed Salahuddin, and Dean Vickers. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society February 2016, Vol. 97, No. 2 DOI: Published online 14 March 2016

This is an open access paper.

A ‘Candy Crush’ like video game for malaria

Yesterday*, April 25, 2016 was* World Malaria Day and the launch date for a new video game according to an April 25, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Shoot bubbles while helping research against malaria? It is possible with MalariaSpot Bubbles, an online game that launches on April 25, World Malaria Day. Players analyze digitalized images of parasites to differentiate between the five species that cause malaria. They do it while having fun shooting at mosquitoes and bubbles. It is an application to learning through play and to contribute to the research of new diagnosis methods. MalariaSpot Bubbles has been developed by researchers of the Biomedical Imaging Technologies Group at the Technical University of Madrid — International Excellence Campus Moncloa.

An April 25, 2016 Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (Technical University of Madrid) press release, which originated the news item, describes the game and the goal in more detail (Note 1: A link has been removed; Note 2: I believe this text was originally in Spanish and then translated by machine resulting in a few unusual grammatical structures),

MalariaSpot Bubbles is an educational tool to research how young students acquire skills through gaming. During World Malaria Day thousands of students will participate in “Olympic Malaria Videogames” playing MalariaSpot Bubbles, a video game that uses images of digitized blood samples. During this day school teams will compete to become the best virtual hunters of malaria parasites.

“Digital natives around the world spend millions of hours a day playing video games. MalariaSpot Bubbles is an experiment to explore this potential as a new solution to global health problems” says Daniel Cuadrado, MalariaSpot developer and researcher at the Technical University of Madrid.

Diagnosis for everyone by everyone

MalariaSpot Bubbles not only allow players to learn, but also to participate in the research of new tools for collaborative diagnosis online. Malaria is diagnosed by observing a blood smear with a microscope and looking for parasites. Part of the diagnostic protocol is to identify which of the five different species that cause malaria is present in the blood. “This is especially important to provide the proper treatment to the patients”, says María Linares, researcher at Hospital 12 de Octubre and MalariaSpot biomedical specialist. The aim of MalariaSpot Bubbles is to research if remote diagnosis could be performed collectively by non experts, expanding the concept initiated four years ago with the first version of the game MalariaSpot. This project has been recently featured in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.

Here’s a video introduction to the game,

And, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper in Lancet,

Gamers join real-life fight against malaria and tuberculosis by Leonore Albers. Lancet Volume 16, No. 4, p418, April 2016 DOI:

This paper is behind a paywall.

Should you wish to play, the MalariaSpot Bubbles website is here.

*Oops! ‘Today’ changed to ‘Yesterday’ and ‘is’ changed to ‘was’ since today is April 26, 2016.

NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration), one of the world’s largest hackathons, and women

Elizabeth Segran’s April 19, 2016 article for Fast Company profiles some work being done at NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to encourage more women to participate in their hackathons (Note: A link has been removed),

For the past four years, NASA has hosted the Space Apps Challenge, one of the biggest hackathons on the planet. Last year, 14,264 people gathered in 133 locations for 48 to 72 hours to create apps using NASA’s data. A team in Lome, Togo, built a clean water mapping app; one in Bangalore, India, created a desktop planetarium; another in Pasadena, California, created a pocket assistant for astronauts. This year’s hackathon happens this upcoming weekend [April 22 – 24, 2016].

While NASA has been able to attract participants from all corners of the globe, it has consistently struggled to get women involved. NASA is working very hard to change this. “The attendance is generally 80% male,” says Beth Beck, NASA’s open innovation project manager, who runs the Space Apps Hackathon. “It’s more everyman than everywoman.”

There is a mention of a 2015 Canadian hackathon and an observation Beth Beck made at the time (from the Segran article),

Beck noticed that female participation in hackathons seemed to drop after the middle school years. At last year’s hackathon in Toronto, for instance, there were two sections: one for students and one for adults. Girls made up at least half of the student participants. “The middle school girls looked like honey bees, running around in little packs to learn about the technology,” she says. “But in the main hacking area, it was all guys. I wanted to know what happens that makes them lose their curiosity and enthusiasm.”

Beck’s further observations led to these conclusions,

It turns out that women are not significantly more interested in certain subjects than others. What they cared about most was being able to explore these topics in a space that felt friendly and supportive. “They are looking for signals that they will be in a safe space where they feel like they belong,” Beck says. Often, these signals are very straightforward: they seek out pictures of women on the event’s webpage and look for women’s names on the speaker panels and planning committees. …

Another interesting thing that Beck discovered is that women who are brave enough to attend these events want to go a day early to get the lay of the land and perhaps form a team in advance. They want to become more comfortable with the physical space where the hackathon will take place and learn as much as possible about the topics. “When the hackathon then becomes flooded with men, they feel ready for it,” she says.

While men described hacking as something that they did in their spare time, the research showed that many women often had many other family responsibilities and couldn’t just attend a hackathon for fun. And this wasn’t just true in developing countries, where girls were often tasked with childcare and chores, while boys could focus on science. In the U.S., events where there was childcare provided were much more highly attended by women than those that did not have that option. …

NASA’s hackathons are open to people with diverse skill sets—not just people who know code. Beck has found that men are more likely to participate because they are interested in space; they simply show up with ideas. Women, on the other hand, need to feel like they have the appropriate battery of skills to contribute. With this knowledge, Beck has found it helpful to make it clear that each team needs strong storytellers who can explain the value of the app. …

The folks at NASA are still working at implementing these ideas and Segran’s article describes the initiatives and includes this story (Note: A link has been removed),

Last year [2015], for instance, two female students in Cairo noticed that the hackathon has specifically called out to women and they wanted to host a local chapter of the hackathon. Their professor, however, told them that women could not host the event. The women reached out to NASA themselves and Beck wrote to them personally, saying that she highly encouraged them to create their own event. That Cairo event ended up being the largest Space Apps hackathon in the world, with 700 participants and a wait list of 300. …

Kudos to Beth Beck, NASA, and those two women in Cairo.

For anyone (male/female) interested in the 2016 hackathon, it’s being held this weekend (April 22 – 24, 2016), from the NASA Space Apps Challenge homepage,

For 48-72 hours across the world, problem solvers like you join us for NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge, one of the largest hackathons in the universe. Empowered by open data, you collaborate with strangers, colleagues, friends, and family to solve perplexing challenges in new and unexpected ways — from designing an interactive space glove to natural language processing to clean water mapping. Join us on our open data mission, and show us how you innovate.

Not Just For Coders

Beginners, students, experts, engineers, makers, artists, storytellers — Space Apps is for you! We welcome all passionate problem solvers to join our community of innovators. Citizens like you have already created thousands of open-source solutions together through code, data visualizations, hardware and design. How will you make your global impact?

It’s too late to become a host for the hackathon but you may be able to find a location for one somewhere near you on the hackathon website’s Locations page. There are three locations in Canada for the 2016 edition: Toronto (waitlist), Winnipeg (still open), and Waterloo (waitlist).

Are they just computer games or are we in a race with technology?

This story poses some interesting questions that touch on the uneasiness being felt as computers get ‘smarter’. From an April 13, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

The saying of philosopher René Descartes of what makes humans unique is beginning to sound hollow. ‘I think — therefore soon I am obsolete’ seems more appropriate. When a computer routinely beats us at chess and we can barely navigate without the help of a GPS, have we outlived our place in the world? Not quite. Welcome to the front line of research in cognitive skills, quantum computers and gaming.

Today there is an on-going battle between man and machine. While genuine machine consciousness is still years into the future, we are beginning to see computers make choices that previously demanded a human’s input. Recently, the world held its breath as Google’s algorithm AlphaGo beat a professional player in the game Go–an achievement demonstrating the explosive speed of development in machine capabilities.

An April 13, 2016 Aarhus University press release (also on EurekAlert) by Rasmus Rørbæk, which originated the news item, further develops the point,

But we are not beaten yet — human skills are still superior in some areas. This is one of the conclusions of a recent study by Danish physicist Jacob Sherson, published in the journal Nature.

“It may sound dramatic, but we are currently in a race with technology — and steadily being overtaken in many areas. Features that used to be uniquely human are fully captured by contemporary algorithms. Our results are here to demonstrate that there is still a difference between the abilities of a man and a machine,” explains Jacob Sherson.

At the interface between quantum physics and computer games, Sherson and his research group at Aarhus University have identified one of the abilities that still makes us unique compared to a computer’s enormous processing power: our skill in approaching problems heuristically and solving them intuitively. The discovery was made at the AU Ideas Centre CODER, where an interdisciplinary team of researchers work to transfer some human traits to the way computer algorithms work. ?

Quantum physics holds the promise of immense technological advances in areas ranging from computing to high-precision measurements. However, the problems that need to be solved to get there are so complex that even the most powerful supercomputers struggle with them. This is where the core idea behind CODER–combining the processing power of computers with human ingenuity — becomes clear. ?

Our common intuition

Like Columbus in QuantumLand, the CODER research group mapped out how the human brain is able to make decisions based on intuition and accumulated experience. This is done using the online game “Quantum Moves.” Over 10,000 people have played the game that allows everyone contribute to basic research in quantum physics.

“The map we created gives us insight into the strategies formed by the human brain. We behave intuitively when we need to solve an unknown problem, whereas for a computer this is incomprehensible. A computer churns through enormous amounts of information, but we can choose not to do this by basing our decision on experience or intuition. It is these intuitive insights that we discovered by analysing the Quantum Moves player solutions,” explains Jacob Sherson. ? [sic]

The laws of quantum physics dictate an upper speed limit for data manipulation, which in turn sets the ultimate limit to the processing power of quantum computers — the Quantum Speed ??Limit. Until now a computer algorithm has been used to identify this limit. It turns out that with human input researchers can find much better solutions than the algorithm.

“The players solve a very complex problem by creating simple strategies. Where a computer goes through all available options, players automatically search for a solution that intuitively feels right. Through our analysis we found that there are common features in the players’ solutions, providing a glimpse into the shared intuition of humanity. If we can teach computers to recognise these good solutions, calculations will be much faster. In a sense we are downloading our common intuition to the computer” says Jacob Sherson.

And it works. The group has shown that we can break the Quantum Speed Limit by combining the cerebral cortex and computer chips. This is the new powerful tool in the development of quantum computers and other quantum technologies.

After the buildup, the press release focuses on citizen science and computer games,

Science is often perceived as something distant and exclusive, conducted behind closed doors. To enter you have to go through years of education, and preferably have a doctorate or two. Now a completely different reality is materialising.? [sic]

In recent years, a new phenomenon has appeared–citizen science breaks down the walls of the laboratory and invites in everyone who wants to contribute. The team at Aarhus University uses games to engage people in voluntary science research. Every week people around the world spend 3 billion hours playing games. Games are entering almost all areas of our daily life and have the potential to become an invaluable resource for science.

“Who needs a supercomputer if we can access even a small fraction of this computing power? By turning science into games, anyone can do research in quantum physics. We have shown that games break down the barriers between quantum physicists and people of all backgrounds, providing phenomenal insights into state-of-the-art research. Our project combines the best of both worlds and helps challenge established paradigms in computational research,” explains Jacob Sherson.

The difference between the machine and us, figuratively speaking, is that we intuitively reach for the needle in a haystack without knowing exactly where it is. We ‘guess’ based on experience and thereby skip a whole series of bad options. For Quantum Moves, intuitive human actions have been shown to be compatible with the best computer solutions. In the future it will be exciting to explore many other problems with the aid of human intuition.

“We are at the borderline of what we as humans can understand when faced with the problems of quantum physics. With the problem underlying Quantum Moves we give the computer every chance to beat us. Yet, over and over again we see that players are more efficient than machines at solving the problem. While Hollywood blockbusters on artificial intelligence are starting to seem increasingly realistic, our results demonstrate that the comparison between man and machine still sometimes favours us. We are very far from computers with human-type cognition,” says Jacob Sherson and continues:

“Our work is first and foremost a big step towards the understanding of quantum physical challenges. We do not know if this can be transferred to other challenging problems, but it is definitely something that we will work hard to resolve in the coming years.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Exploring the quantum speed limit with computer games by Jens Jakob W. H. Sørensen, Mads Kock Pedersen, Michael Munch, Pinja Haikka, Jesper Halkjær Jensen, Tilo Planke, Morten Ginnerup Andreasen, Miroslav Gajdacz, Klaus Mølmer, Andreas Lieberoth, & Jacob F. Sherson. Nature 532, 210–213  (14 April 2016) doi:10.1038/nature17620 Published online 13 April 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Citizen science cyborgs: the wave of the future?

If you’re thinking of a human who’s been implanted with sort of computer chip, that’s not the kind of cyborg citizen scientist that Kevin Schawinski who developed the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project is writing about in his March 17, 2016 essay for The Conversation. Schawinski introduces the concept of citizen science and his premise,

Millions of citizen scientists have been flocking to projects that pool their time and brainpower to tackle big scientific problems, from astronomy to zoology. Projects such as those hosted by the Zooniverse get people across the globe to donate some part of their cognitive surplus, pool it with others’ and apply it to scientific research.

But the way in which citizen scientists contribute to the scientific enterprise may be about to change radically: rather than trawling through mountains of data by themselves, they will teach computers how to analyze data. They will teach these intelligent machines how to act like a crowd of human beings.

We’re on the verge of a huge change – not just in how we do citizen science, but how we do science itself.

He also explains why people power (until recently) has been superior to algorithms,

The human mind is pretty amazing. A young child can tell one human face from another without any trouble, yet it took computer scientists and engineers over a decade to build software that could do the same. And that’s not human beings’ only advantage: we are far more flexible than computers. Give a person some example images of galaxies instead of human faces, and she’ll soon outperform any computer running a neural net in classifying galaxies.

I hit on that reality when I was trying to classify about 50,000 galaxy images for my Ph.D. research in 2007. I took a brief overview of what computers could do and decided that none of the state-of-the-art solutions available was really good enough for what I wanted. So I went ahead and sorted nearly 50,000 galaxies “by eye.” This endeavor led to the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project, in which we invited the public to help astronomers classify a million galaxies by shape and discover the “weird things” out there that nobody knew are out there, such as Hanny’s Voorwerp, the giant glowing cloud of gas next to a massive galaxy.

But the people power advantage has changed somewhat with deep brains (deep neural networks), which can learn and develop intuition the way humans do. One of these deep neural networks has made recent news,

Recently, the team behind Google’s DeepMind has thrown down the gauntlet to the world’s best Go players, claiming that their deep mind can beat them. Go has remained an intractable challenge to computers, with good human players still routinely beating the most powerful computers – until now. Just this March AlphaGo, Google’s Go-playing deep mind, beat Go champion Lee Sedol 4-1.

Schawinski goes on to make his case for this new generation of machine intelligence,

We’re now entering an era in which machines are starting to become competitive with humans in terms of analyzing images, a task previously reserved for human citizen scientists clicking away at galaxies, climate records or snapshots from the Serengeti. This landscape is completely different from when I was a graduate student just a decade ago – then, the machines just weren’t quite up to scratch in many cases. Now they’re starting to outperform people in more and more tasks.

He then makes his case for citizen science cyborgs while explaining what he means by that,

But the machines still need help – our help! One of the biggest problems for deep neural nets is that they require large training sets, examples of data (say, images of galaxies) which have already been carefully and accurately classified. This is one way in which the citizen scientists will be able to contribute: train the machines by providing high-quality training sets so the machines can then go off and deal with the rest of the data.

There’s another way citizen scientists will be able to pitch in: by helping us identify the weird things out there we don’t know about yet, the proverbial Rumsfeldian [Donald Rumsfeld, a former US Secretary of Defense under both the Gerald Ford and George H. Bush administrations] “unknown unknowns.” Machines can struggle with noticing unusual or unexpected things, whereas humans excel at it.

So envision a future where a smart system for analyzing large data sets diverts some small percentage of the data to human citizen scientists to help train the machines. The machines then go through the data, occasionally spinning off some more objects to the humans to improve machine performance as time goes on. If the machines then encounter something odd or unexpected, they pass it on to the citizen scientists for evaluation.

Thus, humans and machines will form a true collaboration: citizen science cyborgs.

H/t March 17, 2016 news item.

I recommend reading Schwawinski’s article, which features an embedded video, in its entirety should you have the time.

Humans, computers, and a note of optimism

As an* antidote to my Jan. 4*, 2016 post titled: Nanotechnology and cybersecurity risks and if you’re looking to usher in 2016 on a hopeful note, this Dec. 31, 2015 Human Computation Institute news release on EurekAlert is very timely,

The combination of human and computer intelligence might be just what we need to solve the “wicked” problems of the world, such as climate change and geopolitical conflict, say researchers from the Human Computation Institute (HCI) and Cornell University.

In an article published in the journal Science, the authors present a new vision of human computation (the science of crowd-powered systems), which pushes beyond traditional limits, and takes on hard problems that until recently have remained out of reach.

Humans surpass machines at many things, ranging from simple pattern recognition to creative abstraction. With the help of computers, these cognitive abilities can be effectively combined into multidimensional collaborative networks that achieve what traditional problem-solving cannot.

Most of today’s human computation systems rely on sending bite-sized ‘micro-tasks’ to many individuals and then stitching together the results. For example, 165,000 volunteers in EyeWire have analyzed thousands of images online to help build the world’s most complete map of human retinal neurons.

This microtasking approach alone cannot address the tough challenges we face today, say the authors. A radically new approach is needed to solve “wicked problems” – those that involve many interacting systems that are constantly changing, and whose solutions have unforeseen consequences (e.g., corruption resulting from financial aid given in response to a natural disaster).

New human computation technologies can help. Recent techniques provide real-time access to crowd-based inputs, where individual contributions can be processed by a computer and sent to the next person for improvement or analysis of a different kind. This enables the construction of more flexible collaborative environments that can better address the most challenging issues.

This idea is already taking shape in several human computation projects, including, which was launched by the Cornell in 2012 to map global conservation efforts one parcel at a time.

“By sharing and observing practices in a map-based social network, people can begin to relate their individual efforts to the global conservation potential of living and working landscapes,” says Janis Dickinson, Professor and Director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

YardMap allows participants to interact and build on each other’s work – something that crowdsourcing alone cannot achieve. The project serves as an important model for how such bottom-up, socially networked systems can bring about scalable changes how we manage residential landscapes.

HCI has recently set out to use crowd-power to accelerate Cornell-based Alzheimer’s disease research. combines two successful microtasking systems into an interactive analytic pipeline that builds blood flow models of mouse brains. The stardust@home system, which was used to search for comet dust in one million images of aerogel, is being adapted to identify stalled blood vessels, which will then be pinpointed in the brain by a modified version of the EyeWire system.

“By enabling members of the general public to play some simple online game, we expect to reduce the time to treatment discovery from decades to just a few years”, says HCI director and lead author, Dr. Pietro Michelucci. “This gives an opportunity for anyone, including the tech-savvy generation of caregivers and early stage AD patients, to take the matter into their own hands.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Human Computation; The power of crowds by Pietro Michelucci, and Janis L. Dickinson. Science 1 January 2016: Vol. 351 no. 6268 pp. 32-33 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6499

This paper is behind a paywall but the abstract is freely available,

Human computation, a term introduced by Luis von Ahn (1), refers to distributed systems that combine the strengths of humans and computers to accomplish tasks that neither can do alone (2). The seminal example is reCAPTCHA, a Web widget used by 100 million people a day when they transcribe distorted text into a box to prove they are human. This free cognitive labor provides users with access to Web content and keeps websites safe from spam attacks, while feeding into a massive, crowd-powered transcription engine that has digitized 13 million articles from The New York Times archives (3). But perhaps the best known example of human computation is Wikipedia. Despite initial concerns about accuracy (4), it has become the key resource for all kinds of basic information. Information science has begun to build on these early successes, demonstrating the potential to evolve human computation systems that can model and address wicked problems (those that defy traditional problem-solving methods) at the intersection of economic, environmental, and sociopolitical systems.

*’and’ changed to ‘an’ and ‘Jan. 3, 2016’ changed to ‘Jan. 4, 2016’ on Jan. 4, 2016 at 1543 PDT.