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.