Something for the weekend:

Compelling yet one can't quite escape the nagging feeling of contributing to a sentient super-comput

In an effort to moderate your productivity, every Friday morning NS CultureTech offers a gentle diversion from the important things you really should be doing. Something for the weekend selects pearls from the deep mire of digital tat that fills your browser, bringing you distractions of only the highest quality.


Some more curious and charitable readers may remember installing the SETI software at some point in the last few years. By simply downloading an innocuous piece of code, you could personally participate in the search for extra-terrestrial life by donating your unused computer-processing power to the analysis of incoming radio telescope data. Whilst the romantic sensation of hunting E.T. was considerably more engaging than the reality (watching a screensaver do maths), this proved to be a hugely popular application. 

Since then, researchers looking to harvest the power of the network have upped the ante considerably, for whilst computers are very efficient at crunching large amounts of data, they are rather less skilled at subjective analysis. Thus were born applications created to tap a new resource, skipping over the processing power of the computer to get straight to the brains of their owners. 

Games With a Purpose is one such project, recently launched from Carnegie Mellon University. It's a refined extension of the google image labeller project from 2007, and is built by some of the same team. Essentially, GWAP squats your brain's processing power by engaging you in playing a game against another anonymous online player; the results of which go towards refining the artificial intelligence of an unidentified computer. For example, we both see an image and try and guess the words each other would use to describe it. For each word that matches, we win points, and an un-identified mainframe learns something about how humans describe images. It's a compelling experience, cognitive research wrapped in the polished visual language of a casual game. Unusually for academic projects such as this, real care has been taken in the production values rendering it indistinguishable from other commercial browser games and an easily accessible experience.

Whilst engaging however, one can't quite escape the nagging feeling of contributing to the development of a sentient super-computer that will someday enslave us. Or, perhaps even more likely, that the whole thing is linked to our Tesco loyalty card profile. 

We, Robot?

google image labeller

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.