Something for the weekend: gwap.com

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.

GWAP.COM

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?

www.gwap.com

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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.