Brain power becomes major Web resource

Projects: Scientists are tapping into the volunteer spirit of thousands of Internet users.

March 12, 2001|By Pamela L. O'Connell | Pamela L. O'Connell,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Maryann Rinsma has a thing about craters. She is not a geologist, but she has recently spent much of her spare time scrutinizing 2,200 photos of Mars landscapes from her home computer.

Rinsma, a respiratory therapist in Bennington, Vt., is a regular visitor to an experimental NASA Web site that asks nonscientists to label craters on Mars, the red planet. The site is one of a growing number of endeavors aimed at tapping two underused resources: the brainpower and the good will of millions of Web users.

Other projects include sites where you can teach common sense to a computer, proofread classic literature for a free e-library and help maintain the most comprehensive directory of the Web.

No experts need apply: These sites are designed specifically for nonspecialists, working alone, who supply simple information or perform basic tasks. Such projects already report a volunteer corps of more than 100,000.

Volunteers are drawn to these projects for many reasons, including altruism, the chance to join a new online social circle and intellectual curiosity. Others see them as opportunities to be part of important scientific or cultural undertakings.

"I am interested in astronomy, so I jumped at the chance to see pictures that few people have seen of a place that no one's been to," Rinsma said of the Mars site, which has attracted more than 30,000 volunteers. "It has changed my perception of the Web as a trivial place."

Large-scale Web collaborations of this sort represent a new type of volunteering, one that organizers say could play a significant role in many projects if issues like quality control are properly addressed.

In particular, enlisting online users to accumulate huge stores of data about human behavior and judgments could revolutionize the development of artificial intelligence systems like speech recognition, said Dr. David Stork, chief scientist at Ricoh Innovations Inc. and founder of the nonprofit Open Mind Initiative.

Open Mind volunteers can take part in more than 25 online activities to create a sort of common-sense database, feeding information into a computer based on tasks that range from the straightforward (listing objects that appear in a picture) to the thoughtful (teaching the computer about people's goals and desires). Eventually a computer with a modicum of common sense could be used for a variety of purposes, including vastly improved Web searching.

Since September, more than 5,000 volunteers have contributed nearly a quarter-million entries to this database. One is Jerry Fass, a self-described "failed inventor" in Milwaukee who has added more than 3,800 common-sense pieces of information. He is also an active participant in the Open Directory Project, an extensive Web-site directory maintained by more than 34,000 volunteers.

These collaborations are widely viewed as the next step in distributed-computing projects, which break down complex computations into many smaller tasks that are then parceled out via the Net to volunteers' computers. The PC's work on the tasks when idle. Such projects have attracted millions of volunteers to endeavors like scanning radio-telescope signals for alien messages and cracking data-encryption codes.

Now the idea of distributed computing is being applied not to digital processing but to idle brainpower, according to Kirk Pearson, a computer engineer in Broomfield, Colo. He is a frequent volunteer who runs a comprehensive Web site on the topic.

Pearson coined the term "distributed human projects" to refer to projects that depend on human expertise, not computer downtime. "Many participants in distributed computing projects are frustrated because they are eager to get their minds, not just their computers, involved," he said.

The crater Web site was set up to harness uniquely human skills, like perception, by Bob Kanefsky, a software engineer and contractor at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, near Mountain View, Calif. The site tests his theory that many scientific tasks require a good eye and common sense but not much training.

Using photos of Mars that have already been studied by a geologist, volunteers are asked to click on areas that look like craters to confirm, by consensus, their locations and outlines. Since the online effort began in November, more than 530,000 craters have been marked and 120,000 classified.

"The amount of work done is comparable to what it took a scientist years to accomplish," Kanefsky said by e-mail. Now he is ready to go beyond merely proving his concept. The project is expanding to include unscreened photos from the recently completed Mars Global Surveyor mission.

Looking ahead, Kanefsky added that "it's easy to imagine a network of humans analyzing data in real time" from a spacecraft mission.

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