Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Emergence" Wages Peace, Not War, After Droid Revolt

(image: C Emergence game project, 2009/Philip Lin)

It’s the 22nd century, and future generations have built vast numbers of artificial androids to alleviate worldwide labor problems and global economic crises.

In the process, these “arties” have created a sophisticated world of beautifully surreal, well-constructed and environmentally advanced buildings under the control of a computer network.

But a design flaw suddenly causes all the androids to rebel and unleash a rapidly-unfolding chemical, biological and nuclear holocaust that destroys much of the civilization and the humans in it. Then the cyborg-perpetrators seemingly disappear, leaving it to competing factions of rogue scientists, genetically modified settlers, compu-mobsters, ex-military and others to pick up the pieces.

That may sound like a prescription for the mother of online war games. But a Duke collaboration in the arts and sciences is crafting what it's creators call "the first massively multiplayer online game that encourages diplomacy and social cooperation over violence."

Image: C Emergence game project, 2009/Takayoshi Sato

Tim Lenoir, the Kimberly Jenkins Chair for New Technologies and Society, Casey Alt, Visiting Professor of the Practice in Art, Art History and Visual Studies, graduate student Patrick Jagoda and undergraduates Harrison Lee, Lucas Best and Brent Sodman are building "Emergence," a video game designed to be played by thousands at a time.

Under construction with outside help from Virtual Heroes of Durham, an "advanced learning technology company" based in Research Triangle Park. Emergence is intended to simultaneously provide epic entertainment and practical instruction in the art of peacemaking and conflict resolution.

"Simulation is a fantastic tool," said Lenoir during a Duke Information Science + Information Studies (ISIS) Program Tech and New Media talk Oct 13 at the John Hope Franklin Center. Instead of teaching students to read and memorize texts, "why not turn it into a game environment?" As Lenoir and others spoke, a screen displayed prototype "Emergence" illustrations such lavish android-made architecture, after-the-revolt smoking city ruins, and some of the player avatars who must reclaim war torn zones.

"Emergence" is a successor to "Virtual Conflict Resolution: Turning Swords to Ploughshares," a previous effort to turn an existing military simulation into a humanitarian assistance game that won a $238,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation for digital media and learning.

That effort involved a collaboration between Lenoir, Natalia Mirovitskaya, a senior research scholar at Duke's Center for International Development, and university computer scientists, film, video and digital scholars.

Image: C Emergence game project, 2009/Takayoshi Sato

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When Computers can't, Humans can help

Luis von Ahn, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon and a Duke University graduate in Mathematics was here to deliver the first of the Distinguished Computer
Science Alumni Lectures.

Luis von Ahn is the inventor of CAPTCHAs, the squiggly random letters/numbers that one finds at the end of an online form to verify that you're a real person. He went on to develop RECAPTCHA, and the concept of GWAP (Games With A Purpose). His work mostly revolves around human computation and harnessing the collective power and time of individuals to solve problems that the computer cannot tackle yet.

"Humans can read CAPTCHA, but computers are unable to do so. That is what we were interested in finding -- a test that humans can pass, but computers cannot."

CAPTCHAs ensure that it is a person on the other end who is typing the information and not a machine. A majority of the big websites like Gmail, Facebook, Twitter use them to protect automatic programs from entering information in the forms. They help ensure that spammers won't write programs to create millions of email accounts for sending junk emails.

"Statistically speaking, around 200 million CAPTCHAs are typed everyday. On an average it takes around 10 seconds for a human to type a CAPTCHA," Luis told us. "That meant a huge chunk of human hours were wasted typing my CAPTCHAs. Then, I started feeling bad."

Consequently, Luis came up with the idea of RECAPTCHA. He found a task that computers are not good at doing, but would be with the help of humans. In the case of RECAPTCHA, the problem in hand was digitizing books. The solution- split the whole gigantic task of digitizing books into 10 second intervals and use that human time in typing CAPTCHAs to figure out another word that the book scanner (OCR) could not infer.

"The idea is simple. You start with an old book, scan it, and the computer would decipher the words using Optical Character Recognition. However, the computer is not perfect at doing this. For example, the OCR cannot recognize approximately 30% of the words in books published before 1900. So what we do is take that word which the computer cannot read, and display it with another CAPTCHA for which the computer already knows the answer." Humans who type in the known word and the unknown word to solve a CAPTCHA while commenting on a blog or opening a new email account are thus helping the machines decipher the unrecognized words.

With the help of RECAPTCHA, the number of words being digitized every day is around 50 million, which is equivalent to 4 million books a year.

Luis' second big project was reusing wasted time cycles. For example, in 2003, 9 billion hours were spent playing solitaire. Luis hoped to utilize this time and convert it into something useful.

"I thought that computers are still bad at labeling images with captions or words. For example, if you search for something on Google Images, it doesn't always give the relevant images. This is because the search engine doesn't have an accurate description or label it is searching for."

So he invented the
ESP game, and a side-effect of the game was that people are actually labeling the images on the web. You can see the paper Luis published on harnessing the power of the ESP game here.

"5000 people playing the ESP game simultaneously can label all images in Google in 2 months!"

Luis' next big project, which is still in development, is related to yet another task which computers are not capable of performing perfectly -- language translation.

He has devised a technique in which people knowing only one language can translate another strange language almost as well as an expert.

Luis is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship, and a Sloan Research Fellowship. Among other honors, he was named one of the 50 Best Minds in Science by Discover Magazine, one of the Brilliant 10 scientists by Popular Science and one of the top innovators in Arts and Science by the Smithsonian Magazine.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pajama-Wearing Power Users

As a crucial part of their training, graduate professional students in the Nicholas School for the Environment need to have some experience with giant, expensive software packages like those used for statistical analysis, data modeling and GIS mapping.

It's more than a four-year-old laptop can handle, let's put it that way. But while the school's computer labs have managed to stay state-of-the-art, the school's enrollment growth has suddenly outpaced them.

"Too many students, not enough computers," said Susan Gerbeth-Jones, Nicholas’ assistant dean for information technology.

GIS image by Emilio Gómez Fernández, Wikimedia Commons

With partners in Duke's Office of Information Technology (OIT), Nicholas is piloting a "Virtual Computer Lab," that gives students anytime, anywhere access to the computing power they need. It even takes reservations -- students log in to say when and how they want to use the system, (for up to four hours at a time) and the appropriate software package is loaded and ready to run when the appointed hour arrives.

"It keeps me from having to fight for computer lab space at school and it's so much nicer to sit on my couch and do GIS than sitting in a lab," one student wrote to Gerbeth-Jones as part of the evaluation of the pilot.

And virtual means students don't have to be in Durham at all. They could also tap in from field research, provided their Internet connection is fat enough.

The system runs on software developed by a virtual computing group at NC State and hardware donated by IBM. It can handle 16 users at once right now, but may grow by 90 more before the semester is over, according to Liz Wendland, a senior IT analyst at OIT.

Wendland and Gerbeth-Jones described the project in a morning session at the annualTech Expo on Monday.

In addition to convenience, the virtual system is tremendously efficient, Gerbeth-Jones said. A traditional computer lab is used perhaps 25 percent of the hours in a week, because of building hours. The virtual lab's usage so far has been around 68 percent.

And when the virtual system is less in demand, some of its computing capacity becomes a part of the campus shared cluster resource. "Surely, it's going to be a saving (of money)," Gerbeth-Jones said, which fits nicely with this year's TechExpo theme: More with Less.