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Communications of the ACM

ACM CareerNews

Human Computation and Crowdsourcing


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New approaches to crowdsourcing on the Internet are making it possible for computers to use human capabilities in order to solve problems, making it possible for them to complete tasks that involve challenges far beyond what algorithms and artificial intelligence can achieve. These tasks can be simple — such as solving a Captcha puzzle — or more complex, such as judging artistic value. Understanding these reversed forms of human-computer symbiosis, in which the computer asks a person to compute something instead of vice versa, is the main object of research in the rising field of human computation. Of course, it's really humans who are using computers in order to utilize other humans' capabilities, with computers being used to coordinate between humans as they interact among themselves. The article reviews some of the most important issues and developments at the nexus of human computation and crowdsourcing.

Incentives are important to consider when thinking about the future of human computation and crowdsourcing. Do people partake in human computation tasks for fun, like playing a game? Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University thought so when he developed Games with a Purpose. Others think users are motivated by money. Sharon Chiarella, vice president at Amazon, shares her view on the human computation market she leads, Mechanical Turk, a site where people can pick up micro-tasks and get paid to do them. Panagiotis Ipeirotis of New York University has been collecting data about Amazon's online marketplace and presents a fascinating new analysis of the system. Or perhaps there's no need for any special incentive. David Ayman Shamma of Yahoo! Research shows how human computation can happen passively, taking advantage of everyday human activities like using Twitter in order to complete computational tasks such as video parsing.

There are several different applications for human computation and crowdsourcing, both present and future. Robert Miller of MIT and his colleagues outline the major challenges involved in building systems that use human intelligence as an integral component, including understanding what kinds of problems are appropriate for human computation, and dealing with specific software-design and performance challenges arising when humans are in the loop. There are also social and ethical implications. Six Silberman, Lilly Irani, and Joel Ross, graduate students at University of California-Irvine, view Mechanical Turk through the eyes of the workers. They describe some of the problems the voluntary workforce experiences and present several approaches to increase fairness and equality.

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