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March 4, 2010

Minds for Sale: How mental energy is being harnessed

The impact of Internet technology on the power of crowds to get things done is manifesting in both beneficial and perhaps nefarious ways.

In the 2010 Sara Fine Institute lecture, Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain examined the cost to individuals and society when brainpower is easily bought and sold.

His Feb. 18 talk, “Minds For Sale,” surveyed ways mental energy is being harnessed by “crowdsourcing” and some of the unique benefits and problems that can arise through the often-anonymous online calls for participation.

Jonathan Zittrain

Jonathan Zittrain

One way in which tasks can be accomplished is by establishing a prize and allowing others to compete for it.

Zittrain himself took this approach in finding a cover design for his recent book. A contest was set up at an online creative skills marketplace,, which attracted entries from about 30 people. A connection was made with a designer in Holland and after a bit of negotiation, the cover was designed. “Who knew you could put this out to the world and something would come back that would be so good?” he said.

Enterprises such as the X Prize Foundation and InnoCentive utilize the same model, offering prize money for solutions to technical problems and challenges.

One recent X Prize challenge offered $10 million to put a reusable orbiter into space and bring it back safely; InnoCentive recently sought solutions for the aesthetic problem of discoloration in bottled juice.

Such high-skill tasks sit at the top of the pyramid, where it costs large amounts of money to harness the minds of people who can undertake the complex work. However, Zittrain noted, at the base of the pyramid are plenty of opportunities where little skill is required and broader participation can be achieved — often for pennies, sometimes for free.

Some of the opportunities are employment: The person taking drive-through fast food orders or fielding calls to the local pizza chain may not actually be at the restaurant. A firm called LiveOps uses independent operators who work from home to provide flexible customer service. “You never even know it was a person in the privacy of their own home doing all that,” he said, citing another LiveOps claim to fame: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, LiveOps was used to put thousands of extra operators on the phones to field calls to the Red Cross’s toll-free donation line.

The company solicits “mompreneurs” and others who work when it’s convenient, even in one-call increments — a freedom-enhancing choice for people who may have few work options, Zittrain noted. A similar site, SamaSource, employs residents of refugee camps who work via their cell phones.

Similarly,’s Mechanical Turk marketplace bills itself as “artificial artificial intelligence,” co-opting the name of the iconic chess-playing hoax — a supposed automaton actually operated by an unseen human.

Today’s Mechanical Turk marshals a range of human intelligence tasks, or “hits,” commissioned by seekers and fulfilled by solvers who don’t know who is making the request or what will be done with the solution. One hit offered 3 cents for an explanation of the difference between vanilla and French vanilla.

Money isn’t the only way to tap brainpower. Work can be accomplished by making a game of it.

Zittrain cited Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Luis von Ahn’s “ESP game,” which has been purchased by Google. Players look at and label a picture, earning points when their label matches another player’s. Not only is it enjoyable to match and win, but when two strangers agree, it likely is a reliable label for the image, Zittrain noted. Never mind that the points have no real value.

A tremendous amount of brain power is available: At the rate people played the game, 5,000 people playing simultaneously could label all the images on Google in 30 days, Zittrain said.

Similarly, University of Michigan researchers developed a game that solves electronic design automation (EDA) problems.

Computers can go only so far in coming up with ways to reconfigure transistors on computer chips to make the chips faster and more efficient. “These folks say they’ve come up with a game for which doing well in the game maps logically to cramming transistors a little bit closer,” essentially solving a problem through play, Zittrain said.

Players win points, “and in the meantime you have discovered a way — that you don’t need to know anything more about — to actually make the transistors more efficient for some commissioner of the task far away,” he said.

A virtual Tom Sawyer, one company in the United Kingdom has found a way to inexpensively monitor closed-circuit security cameras. The company attracts viewers with the promise of winning points and the possibility of collecting reward money. Viewers click an alert when they see a possible crime occurring.

Similarly, authorities in Texas invited people to view border webcams and click if they saw trouble. Someone would be sent to investigate if enough people flagged trouble on the same camera at the same time, Zittrain said. “People would spend a long time at this site keeping an eye on the border from home,” he said. “Even the people from Texas were surprised just how long people would stay.”

These “cool” technologies come with the possibility of a darker side, Zittrain said.

What if your child goes online to play a game and it turns out that he or she is earning points by unwittingly clicking on a “game” that really is work aimed at developing better computer chips?

While not everyone is bothered by work disguised as child’s play, Zittrain cited other cases in which the free market might become “almost too efficient,” using, for example, one InnoCentive task seeking pyrazolopyridnyl-diazenes. “I don’t know what they do, but there’s money for you if you can come up with some pyrazolopyridnyl-diazenes. You don’t know who’s asking for them; you don’t know what they’re going to do with them. Maybe if you know enough to know how to make them you know enough about what they might be usable for.

“But just imagine your favorite worst case … scenario of the kinds of chemicals or other things that somebody could solicit through this arm’s-length marketplace that they might otherwise have a really hard time getting their mitts on.”

Potential societal implications abound. For instance, virtual bounty hunting can be accomplished via rewards.

In one instance, Zittrain noted, police posted photos of participants in a 2006 marijuana smoke-out at the University of Colorado, offering $50 to the first person to identify people in the crowd.

Similarly, the Iranian government, after the disputed elections, posted on a Farsi language web site photos of protesters they were unable to identify. While some of the people most likely to be able to identify the participants also may be most reluctant to tell the government, Zittrain theorized what could happen if a similar task were set up anonymously as a Mechanical Turk-type task.

Iranian authorities could place the government’s 72 million national ID card photographs, perhaps five at a time, alongside a photo taken of an unidentified protester, and ask respondents to determine whether there is a match. “You can arbitrarily identify any protester in the streets of Tehran,” he said. “And the people doing that application on a service like Mechanical Turk would have no idea what they are doing or why.”

Taken further: What if the task turned up online as a face-matching “game” for children?

“Exactly what makes this economically efficient, this very feature is also what makes it from a societal point of view, I think, extremely troubling,” Zittrain said.

Other socially troubling practices are arising. Systems that rely on the wisdom of the crowds can be subverted, often for just a few pennies at a time, Zittrain said.

Some human intelligence task seekers solicit positive online reviews of products. Sites such as allow buyers to purchase votes on social media sites by paying regular users of the sites $1 to vote for or view an advertiser’s page.

Translated to the real world, such subversion takes on new dynamics.

“What happens when things like subvertandprofit can be used to just tell people to tell their member of Congress X, Y and Z, and the person who’s doing it really doesn’t care, but was just doing it for the money?” Zittrain asked.

Recently, he said, health care reform opponents tapped into the vast numbers of players of the popular online game Farmville. “They were caught paying Farmville players Farmville cash that they could use for Farmville carrots if they would reach out to their non-Farmville real representatives and oppose the health care bill,” he said.

Taken to its logical conclusion, such abuse could result in members of Congress, who often already disregard emails, extending their mistrust to other input from constituents. “Suddenly the metrics they do use — visits in person to their office, people who turn up at a town hall meeting, telephone calls from actual constituents — all of these things are now put into the same bin as email. You can’t trust any of them,” he predicted.

Zittrain said he finds it troubling if members of Congress or even other members of the public are unable to determine where the public genuinely stands. “That really worries me. And I feel like some of the barriers they will put up to try to test for authenticity will simply be ones, then, [in which] the size of the check you have to write to influence gets larger.”

Regulating the intermediaries can be a way to preserve some authenticity in a world where it quickly is disappearing, Zittrain said, citing, for instance, recent Federal Trade Commission guidelines cautioning that bloggers or tweeters who fail to disclose that their reviews were paid endorsements may be engaging in a deceptive trade practice.

However, Zittrain said, the best way to solve a social problem is a social solution, one in which people wouldn’t think of selling out.

He cited the reputation of the community of Wikipedians who, he said, are not easily bought.

“Those who are most into it identify so much with the service that to violate it that way is a violation of themselves. And when you talk about civic education it’s the same idea: To sell your vote for so little in a functioning society would have somebody thinking that they’re selling themselves,” he said.

“I would love to see systems that elicit and welcome that kind of participation and feeling by people.”

Disclosure also is a safeguard. Zittrain cited, a game in which participants work to solve social problems. The site is upfront about its purpose: The reason to play is to help other people.

Although he favors hands-off approaches elsewhere, Zittrain said some protection may be needed for people whose obsessive or compulsive tendencies could be exploited via online gaming, much in the way problem gamblers may need help.

Will the free market win and the qualms all boil down to cash? “It reflects a kind of larger tension,” Zittrain said. When something new comes along, should it be regulated early before worst-case scenarios come to pass, or should wait-and-see be the attitude?

“In many areas of cyberspace, my work and my thinking has been about abstention,” Zittrain said. “Here, I’m like, ‘We’d better do something sooner rather than later before people’s livelihoods depend on the stuff we think is not so great.’”

Zittrain’s lecture can be viewed at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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