Law in the Internet Society

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AaronChanFirstPaper 5 - 13 Nov 2011 - Main.AaronChan
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FoldIt and "Citizen Science"

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 Is it naÔve to believe that people will contribute to the greater good merely out of their desire to improve the human condition? The failure of communism in practice was in the old economy where marginal cost does not equal zero. In the Informational Goods Society, economic models of compensation hold less weight. Eben speaks to this in the dotCommunist Manifesto. If compensation is not the model in the Informational Goods Society, then what is the main motivation for work?
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Michael Goldhauber suggests that motivation on the Internet is driven by reputation. This is further refined by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, who reapplies economic concepts to the Internet. Yet whatever the form the remuneration takes, it is still premised on a quid pro quo. What this fails to anticipate however, is altruistic actions driven by a higher purpose. People engage in self-sacrifice for the greater good. They can be motivated not out of any intrinsic personal benefit, but because they believe in something more.
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Michael Goldhauber suggests that motivation on the Internet is driven by reputation. This is further refined by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, who reapplies economic concepts to the Internet. Yet whatever the form the remuneration takes, it is still premised on a quid pro quo. Yet reputation would lose its incentivizing effect as the activity becomes increasingly dispersed and individual contributions are further anonymized. This is precisely the environment necessary to harness the widest participation. I focus instead on the frequently overlooked incentives of satisfying human curiosity, problem solving, and amusement as driving forces for scientific research. These incentives drive the human attraction to games. Harnessing these incentives joins gaming with research in a way that channels mindless diversion into productive causes.
 

Games and Citizen Science

FoldIt is computer game designed by University of Washington researchers that allows players to design protein structures by folding amino acids. Given the complexity of folding dozens, if not hundreds, of amino acids into viable protein structures, brute force computing power would not be a practical way of solving the problem with the current technology. Humans have an advantage in recognizing patterns and certain three-dimensional spatial intuitions that computers cannot currently simulate. What had stumped scientists for more than a decade, a retrovirus protease in rhesus monkeys, was solved by a worldwide consortium of players in ten days. The vast majority of these players had little biology or chemistry experience, relying only on the rules of the game as dictated by real physics. The discovery of the retroviral protease has been published in a scientific journal, naming a team of players, the FoldIt Contenders Group (FCG), as coauthors. In an interview with one of the FCG members, “mimi” preferred to be credited pseudonymously or anonymously. The main motivation for many of these players was advancement of science, not fame or recognition. They were not paid for their participation; many simply wanted a challenge and to work towards something big.

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Video games, at their most fundamental level, are sets of puzzles. Why create arbitrary puzzles when real life puzzles exist with greater implications for their completion? FoldIt is only one of several other projects collectively grouped together as “citizen science.” These projects crowdsource because they benefit from certain human attributes that are not duplicable in computers currently. I have roughly divided them into three types of projects, though the distinctions are weak and mostly result of current computing capabilities. FoldIt fits in the group that requires certain human ingenuities that computers have not been able to simulate so far. This may include spatial reasoning, like in FoldIt. Some may benefit from human creativity, like creating RNA for nano functions in EteRNA. Others may rely on an eye for seeing patterns, like in comparing interspecies DNA in Phylo.

Another group of games are projects that require human interpretation of analog data streams. While human involvement may only be necessary now because of the limits of software or computing power, there are still uses for human interaction. This is the technological hurdle fueling CAPTCHA algorithms now. But as with CAPTCHA, eventually computers defeat them too. Ancient Lives is a project categorizing a trove of ancient Greek and Roman writings found in an Egypt. OldWeather sets players abroad ships and task them with digitalizing handwritten weather logs.

While the previous two categories are projects that can conceivably be accomplished completely by computers with improved software, the third category involves the physical world. These projects rely on players gathering data, rather than solving puzzles. They are different types of games, driven by collection rather than problem solving. After the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, a volunteer network of scientists and tech enthusiasts formed Safecast to track radiation levels in nearby areas. The group created jury-rigged Geiger counters and tasked residents of these areas with collecting data on radiation concentrations and distributions. The Global Amphibian Blitz has participants photograph frogs they encounter and upload their GPS locations. It has helped scientists track populations of amphibians for conservation and research purposes.

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Video games, at their most fundamental level, are sets of puzzles. Why create arbitrary puzzles when real life puzzles exist with greater implications for their completion? FoldIt is only one of several other projects collectively grouped together as “citizen science.” These projects crowdsource because they benefit from certain human attributes that are not duplicable in computers currently.
 
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These projects all share one central trait—the participants, or players, are not paid for their work. In some cases they may receive credit, such as named as coauthors in publications or the opportunity to name discovered asteroids, but they receive no direct benefit. Whatever reason compels them to contribute, they are not driven by capitalistic models. Perhaps this is no different than volunteer models in the old economy, but the Information Goods Society has empowered the same efforts on much larger scales. Citizen science is driven more than volunteerism, it also leverages the human desire to solve puzzles. Maybe this model would not be compelling enough to uproot the traditional capitalism, even on the Internet, but by giving the tools to accomplish these goals to more people, there will be a larger volunteer pool.
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Yochai Benkler’s paper Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm evaluates the motivations for contribution to the open software movement. He identifies the spontaneous creativity birthed when components from production are “sufficiently small grained, and the cost of connecting people to projects sufficiently low thanks to cheap network connections.” By breaking difficult project into discrete consumable parts and make participation as least cumbersome as possible, crowdsourced projects can harness the creative spark in a wide participatory network. While this phenomenon has been documented before, I suggest that there is an additional incentive that is a driving factor for FoldIt—specifically, gaming taps into satisfying human curiosity, problem solving, and diversion. Tapping into the non-gaming online behavior has been a critical model for the success of such projects as Google, which reinforces its search algorithms based on the conduct of its users. But given the tremendous amount of energy devoted to quick and simple online games (Farmville at its peak had 83 million monthly active users) some of that mindless clicking can be channeled into more productive projects. People naturally seek out fun and challenges. It takes what Benkler calls an “integrator” to manage those clickstreams and combine the discrete component functions. He identifies four mechanisms for solving the integration problem.
  1. Iterative peer production of the integration function itself
  2. Technical solutions embedded in the collaboration platform
  3. Norm-based social organization
  4. Limited reintroduction of hierarchy or market forces to provide the integration function alone.
Though the last mechanism would run the risks of the firm, real-life examples in open software, such as Mozilla and Red Hat have shown its value. For scientific research, the first three mechanisms may not be appropriate unless the players are all sophisticated because it would require a high level integrator to atomize the tasks and divine larger meaning from their outcomes. The reintroduction of the firm for the purposes of integration does not necessarily have to be completely noncommercial. Scientists can team up with game developers to create a saleable video game with puzzles that have real-life applications. The game developers are not looking to control the outcome of their puzzles; they only seek to provide the highest level of amusement. Scientists may benefit from game designers who can help craft seemingly mind-numbing research tasks into appealing challenges and puzzles.
 
I think this is a good first draft. You've identified some phenomena you want to write

Revision 5r5 - 13 Nov 2011 - 16:11:43 - AaronChan
Revision 4r4 - 10 Nov 2011 - 17:41:14 - SylviaDuran
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