Sunday, October 31, 2010

Games That Do Some Good For The World

People spend a lot of time playing games, especially computer games. I just got an iPad, and I've been playing a lot of puzzle games, and a lot of them are really fun.

But I'm always trying to maximize my productivity, the productivity of everyone I meet, and I'd love to get everyone else on board too. There is a class of games out there that seek to do some good for the world.

Broadly speaking, games that have a function beyond the entertainment of the player are called serious games. These other functions could be education, training, or solving some real-world problem.

I've been very inspired by Luis von Ahn's work. He has a website called GWAP (Games With A Purpose). He's a genius at getting people to do productive work for him. All of the games on the site server collect valuable data for other computing applications. For example, in the ESP game, players have fun but also tag images with meaningful labels.

The ESP Game
Here's how it works. Two online players are randomly and anonymously paired. They both see an image from the web, and their job is to type in the same words. They can't communicate, and the only thing they see in common is the image. So they naturally type in words that have to do with the image. For instance, for the image at the top of this post, I'd type cookies, tetris, green, frosting, icing, wax paper, etc. If my partner types any of the same words, we get points and go on to the next image. Because we agreed on a word, it has a high probability of actually being meaningfully associated with the image. I encourage you to play it a few times.

What's good about it is that the players could be playing Tetris, or solitaire, or something that does no good for anybody. Instead, they're helping web search, and gathering important data for artificial intelligence applications. All of the games on the GWAP site follow this basic design: get randomly paired people to agree on content. It's worked beautifully.

The FoldIt game is downloadable and is based on a different paradigm. In FoldIt, players solve a puzzle, but the puzzle if informationally identical to folding a protein.

DNA creates proteins, and does little else. Proteins run almost everything in molecular biology. They come out as a chain, but fold into its lowest-energy state. This state is very hard to predict, because the space of possible folds is enormous. The behavior of the protein, however, is determined, to a large extent, by its shape. It's a major, unsolved problem in biology, and I even published an AI paper that tries to make some progress on solving it.

The great insight on the part of the FoldIt designers was to recognize that people's perceptual systems might be better at predicting how the protein would best fold than a computer. A player folds the protein on screen and the computer calculates its energy. The lower the better. The hope is that if people play this they'll find new protein structures for us. Big win.

Here's someone playing FoldIt (you don't need to watch more than a few seconds of it):

The Future
The proportion of games that are serious, in this sense, is vanishingly small. I see an opportunity. The concept of a serious game has blossomed only recently, and I think it's very fertile ground for innovation.  Now, when I play fun games on my iPad, (I'm enjoying WizardBlox and Cablink, lately, and of course I have to give a shout out to Makeout Mania) I try to think of what real world problem I could be solving by playing this game.

One of the problems is that for the computer to score your progress, or to determine that you've won, it needs to be able to solve the problem itself. If the computer can solve the problem itself, then we don't need a serious game. AIs can do all of the work for us already.

A productive game needs to do something that computers are bad at, but people are good at. Doing algebra is bad because computers are great at it. A game for solving the Middle East Crisis is bad because people are no good at it either.

von Ahn gets around the problem by making people agree. The computer does not need to check to see if the tag given is actually associated with the image (which is currently not possible), because the agreement between people does it just fine.

In the case of FoldIt, the computer can how good a given fold is, so it can score it automatically, but it's bad at deciding what folds to evaluate. This allows FoldIt to be a single-player game.

So lately I've been thinking about real world problems that can be dressed up into games that are informationally identical. 

I've developed one GWAP-style game (it is not public yet), and I have another in the works.

I'd love to hear ideas about what kinds of problems might be amenable to this. Don't worry about the game design-- I can do that. I need ideas for good problems.

This post is related to my philosophy of not wasting student work:


Pictured: Tetris Cookies

Bookmark and Share

Friday, October 29, 2010

Article on Jim Davies in Carleton Magazine

There is an article about me in the Carleton Alumni Magazine. You can read it at:

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Automatic Searching for New Papers

I'm always on the lookout for new scientific articles that I can use to inform my work, and cite in my books and papers. But what does being on the lookout entail?

I get papers in the following ways:

  1. People recommend them to me
  2. I read about them in secondary sources (popular science books, magazines, and blogs)
  3. I review journals periodically and try to find relevant papers. 

I'm sure I'm not getting all of the papers I'd like. These methods are haphazard and prone to missing large subfields, because I simply don't know to look in them.

When I find a scientific article I like, I download the PDF and put it in my "articles" directory. They're all in there. Hundreds of them. Overall, they give a pretty good picture of what I'm interested in.

What I'd like is a bot that can analyze these papers, and use them to find papers that are new (to me).
I also enter the books I read into google books. See my blog post on this topic at

It's all available. I would love to get recommendations from an AI.

To go one step further, it could use collaborative filtering (like does) to recommend papers to me that others similar to me have downloaded, cited, or otherwise shown an interest in.

Pictured: Tungsten Rods

Bookmark and Share

Friday, October 08, 2010

Marine Reserves Just Might Be The Best Charity Going

There are a lot of problems in this world, and giving to charities is a potential way to fix some of these problems. Unfortunately, most of the solutions out there involve trade-offs and unforeseen negative consequences.

Just for some examples, giving aid to poor countries has a rather dismal long-term success rate. People become dependent, the charities give things the recipients don't really need, etc. My wife majored in International Development and Globalization, and concluded, like most of her peers, that foreign aid pretty much doesn't do any good.

Donating to medical research has the potential to extend human life, and relieve suffering. For people who think there are too many people on the planet, and that human life doesn't need to be any longer (I'm not one of these people, but I know people who think this), it's a dubious endeavor.

Improving the environment by reducing consumption is a great idea, but of course the drawback is that we have to reduce consumption, which is hard. We get less.

But I know of a cause that appears to have no bad side effects, and involves no trade-offs. It's a complete win: marine reserves, a place where you can't legally fish (the marine park is a related concept, where you also can't fish, but is open for tourism).

I'm getting most of my information about this from the TED talk below, which I highly recommend taking the 20 minutes to watch. Please watch it.

This is the most important talk to see, regarding how great marine reserves are (20 min):

If he's right, and I have not checked to make sure that he is (if you know anything more about it please comment), we have a solution that improves the health of the ocean and increases fishing yields. We get to eat more fish, and there are more fish in the ocean. It works like a bank account. We allow more principle, we live off more interest. In the past 50 years, we've eaten all of the principle, and the oceans are decimated.

I have not know of any organizations that are fighting to get marine reserves in place. If you hear of any, please let me know about them.

This talk is just for those with further interest. It's good, but not necessary. It shows some terrific photographs of the beauty of the ocean and the horror of the overfishing (20 min):

Pictured: Monodactylus argenteus school swims above dead corals near Madagascar.

Bookmark and Share

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Write In: Time Management and Catch Up

Q: Hi Jim,
I have 2 basic "projects" that I spend my time on, and I try to spend 1/3 of my time on one, and 2/3 on the other.  I keep track of the time I spend on each, and try to make the minutes balance out.  Here's my question:  At the end of the week, if I have a surplus or a deficit on one side, should I carry that over into the next week?  Or should I start each week fresh - at 0?  What do you think?

A: The answer is yes if you are consistently not giving one of the projects its due over the course of weeks. For example, if project B is more boring, and some weeks you never hit it, but it's very important, then catch up is required.

The answer is no if you give project A more attention one week and project B more attention on another In this case it's probably balancing itself out, more or less, and overall you're being more productive because you're working on things that you're more enthused about or have opportunities with (e.g., you just found a great paper related to it and just had to read it and incorporate).

Feel free to write in with your own questions to, with the subject line "write in."
Bookmark and Share