Can humans and machines work together to tackle 'wicked' challenges?

Scientists say that 'human computation,' a computer science technique that taps the strengths of humans and computers to accomplish tasks that neither can do alone, has the potential to solve the world's most persistent problems.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File
An illustration file picture shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer, in an office in Warsaw June 24, 2013.

Despite development of increasingly intelligent computers, scientists from Cornell University and the Human Computation Institute in Fairfax, Va., say that they wouldn’t leave the task of solving the world’s most complex problems – from environmental to economic to social – to computers alone.

Instead, the researchers call for a sophisticated form of “human computation,” a computer science technique that taps the strengths of humans and computers to accomplish tasks that neither can do alone. A human-computer collaborative system could incorporate human experiences, reason, and creativity into computer intelligence to solve the world’s most nuanced problems, say researchers in a column published in the January 1 issue of the journal Science.

Today, human computation works when computers assign micro tasks to many people, or to sets of people who can analyze and improve on preceding contributions. Wikipedia is an example of how this works. So is reCAPTCHA, a Google security feature websites use to weed out spammers, and the search giant simultaneously uses to collect wisdom from the crowds.

The reCAPTCHA tool forces people to type the text they see in a box to confirm to a website that they’re human. In doing this, millions of humans also help Google digitize books by recognizing words that its computers cannot read.

This type of human computation has untapped potential to solve global problems that require real-time, collective intelligence, the researchers say.

“Microtasking alone … is inadequate for addressing wicked problems, such as climate change, disease, and geopolitical conflict, which are dynamic, involve multiple, interacting systems, and have nonobvious secondary effects,” write the authors, such as stymied natural disaster relief efforts caused by corrupt government officials who siphon aid money.

"We can draw on human computation methods for stimulating innovation, eliciting new ideas, spreading them around and giving people the opportunity to build on each other's work," Pietro Michelucci, director of the Virginia institute and co-author on the Science column, told LiveScience.

"Of course, all this has to be fun, easy and quick, so that millions of people actually choose to participate," he said.

One example of this technique already in practice is, a conservation-focused social media site launched by Cornell in 2012 to map global conservation efforts by parcel of land based on input from the site's users.

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