Tag Archives: crowd source

Crowd-sourcing “citizen science,” new products and ideas

Citizen engagement is essential to our fast-changing civilization. Politics could certainly use more empowerment of common citizens. So could innovative commerce, and even national defense relies on a robust citizenry. But one area with especially bright prospects, is crowd-sourced — or individual participation in — inventiveness and science.

It’s a topic I’ve discussed many times. As a teenager, growing up in Los Angeles, I participated in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), gathering mountains of data for professional astronomers, one of countless such groups that you might learn about via the Society of Amateur Scientists. In my new novel Existence, I portray this trend accelerating as individuals and small groups become ever more agile at sleuthing, data collection and analysis — forming very very smart, ad-hoc, problem-solving “smart mobs.” But even in the months since that book was published, reality seems to be catching up with fiction.

For example, as funding dollars for science are increasingly under threat, a number of groups are offering opportunities for crowd-funded basic research, enabling citizens to interact directly with teams at the cutting edge of some topic. Envision a kind of KickStarter for science research. Dr. Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge, asks “What would this world look like if every scientist touched a thousand people each year with their science message? How would science-related policy decisions be different if every citizen had a scientist that they personally knew? One thing is for sure: a world with closer connections between scientists and the public would be a better world. And crowdfunding might just help to get us there.”

Backers receive periodic updates on their chosen projects and direct communication with researchers. They may also receive souvenirs, acknowledgment in journal articles, invitations to private seminars, visits to laboratories or field sites, and occasionally, naming rights to new discoveries or species. One advantage to researchers is that they can receive funding in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

Current projects on the science funding site Petridish include: saving the Samaki fish in the world’s largest desert lake, monitoring glacial lakes, and tracking sharks with satellites. Or on Microryza, you can contribute to tracking Magellenic Penguins, or exploring the stability of neural networks. iAMscientist offers opportunities as diverse as monitoring Diamondback Terrapins with new tracking technologies, and robotic hand rehabilitation for stroke victims. Recent projects on RocketHub’s SciFund Challenge include projects to identify new drug candidates to treat Alzheimer’s disease, developing artificial photosynthesis, or saving stressed coral reefs on Kiribati. Or you can donate to specific projects, such as LiftPort, which seeks to build a space elevator.

If you’re looking for more active involvement in research projects, you might try SciStarter, Scientific American’s Citizen Science, or Zooniverse, which offers a compilation of projects for citizen involvement, such as studying how solar storms affect conditions on earth at Solar Stormwatch and identifying exoplanets at PlanetHunters. Volunteers can help classify galaxies at Galaxy Zoo, learn to map retinal connections at EyeWire, map the age of Lunar rocks with MoonZoo, or analyze extraterrestrial signals with SETILive. You can donate your home computer’s processing power to SETI@Home to help analyze data from radio telescopes such as Arecibo.

Indeed, one worthy project that could help in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence more effectively than the sadly obsolete program at the Seti Institute would be to re-ignite Project Argus, the alternative endeavor of the Seti League, that envisions setting up 5000 radio telescopes in back yards across the planet, keeping the entire sky under observation, all the time, instead of peering through a super-narrow soda straw at distant specks of space, one at a time.  A system far more likely to catch the rare blip of an alien race “pinging” us, which recent calculations show to be more plausible than the imagined tutorial “beacons.”  In any event, this is where one millionaire could help thousands of eager (and tech savvy) amateurs to become key members of a worldwide smart mob, hunting ol’ ET down!

Citizens have long participated in regional bird counts, as well as monitoring butterfly migration, wildlife, and local water quality. Technology has enabled high quality data collection and recording tools to be widely available to amateurs. You can even do science without leaving your home…the online game Foldit allows gamers to compete to fold protein structures to achieve the best scoring (lowest energy) configuration.

Whatever your level of involvement, you can have the satisfaction of participating in humanity’s greatest endeavor. In an era when political factions and media empires are waging relentless “war on science” this trend toward active participation — or providing some financial support — is the surest way to help support an active, vigorous, future hungry and scientific civilization.

Well… and vote, of course.   And show your crazy uncle the melting of the arctic…

==Crowd Sourcing Ideas and Innovation! ==

Then there’s tinkering and creating new products, new services, the sort of thing that Adam Smith (and anyone with sense) proclaimed as the heart and soul of productive enterprise. Sure, good things have happened to help stimulate creativity.  Patent law was (believe it or not) a huge advance over what came before.  Venture capitalists tend to have the imagination of Galapagos finches, but they, too, were somewhat of a step forward. Only, now, as we finally creep out of the dullard doldrums of the Naughty Oughts, there arrive dozens of new approaches that may do a lot of good, stimulating our creative juices.

Unused inventions get crowd-sourced sparkMarblar is the latest in a string of “open innovation” sites that attempt, in one way or another, to encourage inventiveness online.  It does this by crowdsourcing a simple request:find new uses for under-exploited patents.

Related endeavors? ArticleOne asks its community of users to find “prior art” – published documents that show an invention existed before it was patented – to quash patents that firms have been accused of infringing.  (It also helps good/original patents to thrive!)

Or take: Innocentive, where companies and NGOs present problems that they feel need solving – such as how to develop a portable rainwater storage system for the developing world. On the flipside, IBridgeNetwork and Yet2.com post university and corporate research in a bid to find people who’ll license their technology to commercialize it.

== Then build it! ==

And the Maker Trend builds momentum!  Read about new companies that will bring 3D printing to the home. Letting you take a downloaded or self-made template and order up a physical version. Even a sculpture made from your head-scan. Commercial 3-D printing works with only a few dozen types of materials, mostly metals and plastics, but more are in the works. Researchers are experimenting with exotic “inks” that range from wood pulp to sugar. (And stem cells! But that’s a different story…)  Some devices can extrude liquid foods, like icing and melted chocolate. Soon we’ll be able to print everything from birthday cakes to electric circuits, potentially making complex electronics from scratch.

“When 3-D printers make an object, they use an “additive” technology, which is to say they build objects layer by layer from the bottom up. (By contrast, other computer-controlled machines, such as the CNC router and CNC mill, are “subtractive”; they use a spinning tool to cut or grind away material.)”

Yes yes.  But will you (gentle reader) forgive me if I add a perhaps mysterious parenthetical? Both methods miss the real deal.  I know how to do it — create 3D objects — by actual random access of individual points in space!  But I ain’t telling.

==Programming for Everyone==

While we’re on the burgeoning topic of crowd-sourcing…  Inform the world about Raspberry Pi!  Can a $35 computer persuade kids to put down their smartphones and try their hands at programming?   Or at least explore the guts that make things work? Another part of the new Maker Movemen.

Long before I keynoted a recent Maker Faire, I was trying to throw incendiaries about this matter.  For example in the Salon Magazine article “Why Johnny Can’t Code,” which complained about the lack of a common – very basic – programming language in all computers. Something simple, reliable and universal — remember when ALL “home” computers had such a lingua franca language that all kids could fool with?  One so common that textbook publishers used to include try-it-at-home exercises in all the math and science books. Yes that language sucked.  But millions of kids got a taste of what made the pixel move — (an algorithm!) — and that does not happen anymore.

(Incidentally, that article brought me more hate mail than even my pieces dissing Star wars!)

Perhaps Raspberry Pi will help to change that, yet again.Tomorrow’s kids may know more about the “guts” of their technological world than the video-game generation does.  In part thanks to great efforts like this.

== And finally… some sci-miscellany ==

Physics wonks Uncertainty over the Uncertainty Principle? Canadian researchers have cleverly used “weak measurement” methods to glimpse the polarization of a light wave before it enters a strong measurement device, in order to appraise whether the effects of measurement are as predicted by the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle.  If verified, the results might indicate that Uncertainty caused by measurement may be but smaller and more complex than we thought.  Maybe.

Random science thought…Is science a one-man enterprise?  Diametrically opposite to fantasy’s romantic images of wizards, the best scientists publish and share as quickly as they can.  And even when they have towering egos, they know they aren’t doing it alone. The Poster Boy is a good example. Galileo is credited with a number of discoveries during the Gosh-Wow-Look! era of astronomy.  Yet very few were uniquely his.  As one of you commented recently: “Marius concluded that Jupiter had moons one day later than Galileo.  David Fabricius published a pamphlet several months before Scheiner made his meticulously documented series of observations, which in turn was a month or two ahead of Galileo.  Harriot as usual was ahead of everyone, and as usual never published.  Sure, he deserved attention as the sun around which science revolved in his era.” (See my short story about Galileo at Harvard!) “But take Galileo out of the equation, and all the same discoveries are made.  We’d be talking about Scheiner’s sunspots, Fabricius’ lunar mountains, Marius’ moons of Jupiter, or Lembo’s phases of Venus!”

== Final Notes ==

Sexiest job of the 21st Century: Data Scientist, according to The Harvard Business Review.

Should our 8 hours of sleep be divided into “firste sleep” and seconde sleep”?

Is it really about to be 2025… the home time of the Jetsons?  Here’s a contemplation of the Jetsons, and how they influenced our attitudes (and expectations) of the Future. Even more chilling, it will soon be 2015, the (back to the) Future of Marty McFly… and where’s my Mr. Fusion?

Yes, I know… this was a long posting.  But it’s about the really important stuff!  Alas, next time we’ll return to the aggravating irritation known as politics.

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“Solutions” to the Fermi Paradox – Contest Winners! (Part One)

Prepare for a feast of ideas (below) about why we seem alone in the cosmos.  But first…

Illustration by Patrick Farley

A wonderful review of Existence from io9: “The story is about life — though he’s calling it Existence, since not all the characters are alive in a biological sense. It’s all about the chaos and passion of adolescence — the designs we make for our lives when we’re young, before unforeseeable events send us spinning into strange new orbits. It’s about the way the world narrows and focuses, as hobbies turn to avocations, legacies are considered and the afterlife looms….     The book proposes that there is not one answer to Fermi’s paradox, but hundreds of answers, ranging from the quotidian to the weird. It also proposes that the best way to confront these answers is deeply human: to be creative, diverse, compromising, curious. That to reach Heaven — or something like it — requires that we look beyond ourselves, beyond humanity (all six species of it), and into the universe beyond.”

=== Winners of the “why are we alone” contest ===

My latest novel, Existence (published yesterday) reveals dozens of scenario about first contact, including a couple of unique ones concerning the Fermi Paradox or The Great Silence, as the quandary of why we have never encountered extraterrestrial civilization has been called. I’ve written about all this extensively in scientific papers and in fiction.

Only then I figured, why not go all-modern and crowd-source this question! So I put it to the folks at may Facebook Fan site, spurred by the offer of a prize — a hardcover first printing of EXISTENCE going to the top vote-getter.  We got a fair number of submissions and the top responses are presented here, ranging from the serious and thoughtful to the humorous and ironic…

…starting with our Grand Prize winner, Mr. Tony Farley, a physics teacher from California.

#1 We don’t have the capabilities to detect anything but a tightly beamed signal. And like detecting the sound of a jet in the sky, where you can see it, is not where you can detect signals from it. You have to point your microphone behind it. With tightly beamed signals over galactic distances, you have to know the proper motion of the planet and its sun and they have to know our proper motion to beam it to us. If they are ten light years away, they have to beam it to where we were ten years ago and we have to point our detectors to where they were ten years ago. All the SETI searches ignore this and hope a civilization is sending out a ridiculously powerful beam in all directions.  –Tony Farley

Tony Farley has also published a physics text, The Electric Force, for the iPad. (I don’t suppose he is related to Patrick Farley, the brilliant web artist who created the vivid preview trailer for Existence? )

In fact, Tony, you are partly on-target with this one. But first, where you are wrong. SETI searches engaged in by the top group near Berkeley do compensate for motions and Doppler shifts and orbital variations to a degree that would amaze you.  They can detect a signal that is spectrum-varying with time and compensate for that as the source spins and rotates and revolves around a noisy star. These are clever folks.

Still, you are right that they still make untenable assumptions. They search the sky with narrow listening beams… looking for aliens who might be BROADcasting hello signals in all directions.  But there’s no reason that even a beneficent race would do that, around the clock, for eons.  Horribly expensive.  They would, as you say, “ping” likely targets like our solar system, maybe once a century.  To detect such pings, instead of one expensive SETI program in one place, we should have a thousand backyard receivers, networked, scanning the whole sky at once.  Look up Project Argus of the SETI League!

And congratulations on your prize! A hardcover of Existence is winging its way to you.

#2 The universe is big in space AND time. It would be a major accomplishment for a technological society to remain intact for a million years, yet that is just a blip on the scale of the universe. How many galactic empires came and went before the Earth was even capable of supporting life? –Thomas Nackid

A good question.  And yes, we might simply not overlap with the others!  But note, Thomas, your assumption is that the numbers of tech races must be very small (and that may be the case) in order for the statistical non-overlap idea to work.  But if there are numerous long-lived species, then we get the Fermi Paradox. And if they travel?  A lot?  Colonization changes all the numbers!

Even if they just explore and don’t colonize, then the Earth would likely have been visited.  But even one toilet flush during the Archaean would have changed life on Earth in ways we’d detect in the rocks.

#3 Life, even intelligent life, is common in the universe, but advanced civilizations are rare, and hard to find in the small window of time that we have been looking, and not all advanced civilizations are nice. Getting between stars and communicating between stars is hard, and having someone close enough to communicate with at the same time you’re communicating is rare, and sometimes perilous. We have not found anyone yet because we can only shout at our nearest neighbors, and our local neighborhood is currently empty, probably by chance and possibly by malice. –Ilithi Dragon

I am one of the SETI experts who has been arguing that the Great Silence may be telling us something.  “If all the races more advanced than us are being quiet… maybe they know something we don’t know?”

Several major voices in the field, Like former NASA SETI chief John Billingham, have joined me in resigning from major committees in protest over the SETI Institute’s role in helping clear a path for METI or “MESSAGE to ETI.”  See our complaint: Shouting at the Cosmos — or How SETI has taken a Worrisome Turn into Dangerous Territory.

#4 They won’t unscramble the signal until we put a deposit down.  –Lone Hanks

hrm… you REALLY want to read my novel EXISTENCE!  There will come a couple of moments when you just break down with guffaws!

Along those same lines: We haven’t yet chosen a intergalactic long distance carrier. —Christopher R. Vesely

#5 The “Do Not Feed the Humans” sign just past Pluto deters all but delinquents making crop circles.  –Kevin King

Ditto my answer to #4!

#6 Civilized people do not just drop in uninvited. –Eli Roth

We’ve been inviting!

Along those same lines: There may be a “Prime Directive” ethos that they stick to. –Glenn Brockett

That’s the “Zoo Hypothesis” that comes in dozens of variations… all of which assume either that the ETIS are few and share the same value system, or else have one heckuva police force…

I’ll toss in one last one:

As society gets rich enough and technologically sophisticated enough, eventually everyone is able to live in their own personal Matrix, customized to provide them with their ideal life. Soon after the civilization stops bothering to expand any further, as the perfect existence can already be found on their home planet and nothing more could be wanted. Humans have a rare neurological structure that prevents them from being satisfied with this sort of simulation. –Eneasz Brodski

See also a discussion of The Great Filter: Does a Galaxy Filled with Habitable Planets Mean Humanity is Doomed? on io9 — Robin Hanson’s concept that there may be some obstacle that consistently prevents species from reaching the technological stage where they can traverse interstellar distances.  (That’s the core topic in my new novel.)

Hey, we’ve run out of space (get it?) So we’ll go through the remaining top candidates next time.  Meanwhile, Congratulations Mr. Farley… and the rest of you for having lively minds!

==

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