Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Meaning through ESP

Google Image Labeler, or the ESP game in it's original incarnation is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn, currently an assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University.

The premise of the game is simple, but its implications are huge in my view. Put simply, these two sites harness the power of 'human computation' to give context and meaning to every single image on the internet today.

The rules are simple; you are paired with someone else on the internet, you don't know who this person is. You both get presented with the same image. Each of you submits words to describe the picture and you score points when you get a match with each other. In doing so, each of you generate numerous words to describe each image. Google can then use these words to enhance their image searching for you.

Computers are notoriously bad at understanding images. They're pretty poor at understanding anything subtle about the human condition to be honest. Currently it's almost impossible for a computer to understand context or meaning of information. They're good at Boolean logic; yes / no, true /false or 1 / 0, but ask a computer what does "Toast the bride" mean, it will have no clue. Perhaps it will suggest roasting the poor girl over a spit.

So, computers struggle to understand meaning in human life? Hmn, maybe we're not so different after all. I know that most of us can mostly understand meaning and metaphor in our day to day lives but so many of us struggle with the more metaphysical questions of meaning like "why am I here?" and "why?" and "Is there a God?".

Typically, my (western) culture tends to value the individualistic notions of the human condition. Just take the recent case of drug abusers suing the prisons authority because of their inhumane treatment in enforcing them to withdraw from opiates. Now, I don't want to get all Daily Mail on your ass here but surely the rights of the community that we live in supersede the rights of these individuals to continue methadone treatments for extended lengths of time whilst in prison?

So, they have won out of court settlements totalling some £750,000. Fine. But this money is due, in my view to the people that they will have inevitably abused and stolen from to feed their addiction in the first place.

My point is this; Meaning, be it that of a photograph, or that of the lives that we live can only be understood from the point of view of others. In my humble opinion, most of us (and I consider myself to be amongst them) are far too focusedon our own, individual livesand experiences to truly understand the meaning of our lives, and thus misunderstand what we often seek; spiritual awareness.

Google Image Labeler & The ESP Game are a nice metaphor for this I think. That, and they're great fun to play...which is nice; it does lift my spirits.

These projects harness the collective power of people and their natural urge to work together. Yes, I do feel a little manipulated in that I'm doing Google's work for them. But in doing so I'm helping humanity in my own minusculeway, one image at a time.

Mind you, I worry about wordgirl (who's constantly at the top of the score board by a mile). She must play the game constantly. I hope she's OK.

Here's a lecture that Luis von Ahn gave shortly before Google created the image labeler project. Funny that, isn't it :-)

1 comment:

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