Crowdsourcing: Ancient Mayan, Genetic Mysteries, and Weapons of Mass Destruction

This week’s readings on crowdsourcing provide a revealing look at both the benefits and drawbacks of seeking problem-solving assistance through reliance on the online community. As the world grows increasingly interconnected through interactive communications technologies, there can be little doubt that crowdsourcing solutions to problems will gain in traction as a low-cost, highly-creative option for individuals and groups seeking “out-of-the-box” solutions to world problems.

Truthfully, although the internet and digital communications certainly provide unique advancement to the desire for crowdsourced solutions, I was particularly piqued by the relationship of the phenomenon with history.  Having recently watched a documentary on the way in which ancient Mayan symbols were decoded, I couldn’t help but notice certain overlaps between this week’s readings and the way in which early-20th Century linguists attacked the interpretation of the Mayan language. 

Much like both articles this week, early efforts to decode Mayan characters were similar in that the content was made publicly available, and many efforts to decode the characters came from individuals outside of the traditional academic structures.  Indeed, looking outside of the traditional community of linguists and anthropologists enabled the development of highly unorthodox approaches to the question of Mayan semiotics.

Brabham noted the importance of escaping the traditional systems and structures of thought in pursuit of unorthodox solutions to the problems of urban planning. Indeed, in the decoding of Mayan linguistics, the efforts of individuals unshackled by traditional academic paradigms enabled irregular approaches to the problem, culminating in the efforts of one Russian academic, Yuri Knozorov, completely isolated from other experts in the field via the Iron Curtain, to approach the problem of decoding ancient Mayan script in a totally unique (and successful) manner.  (Interestingly, when Knozorov saw leaders in the field claiming the text was completely undecipherable, rather than heeding the warnings as valid, he took the claims as a challenge, thus fostering that “game” like atmosphere for himself.)

Current communications technologies enable crowdsourced efforts far beyond those from history, however. For a modern day solution to the question of crowdsourcing, I’ve chosen a slightly irregular example, Stanford University and Sony’s “Folding at Home” (FAH) partnership.

Although Stanford researchers had access to valid models for simulating molecular behavior, they lacked access to computer systems potent enough to actually perform the task, which would require petaFLOPS of processing power.  Ironically, borrowing their solution from a similar one discovered by the Iraqi government under Hussein, Stanford and Sony formed a partnership utilizing the processing power of bundled Playstation 3s in pursuit of solutions to the problem, “Folding at Home.” Crowdsourcing the unused processing power of inactive Playstation3 units (with their owners’ permission), FHA essentially mimicked the processing power of a supercomputer via the networking of Sony’s video game consoles around the world.

To award participants, FHA also enabled the realtime observation of the research, as well as access to emergent data.  What is more, a realtime global map of other Playstation units engaged in FHA enabled users to feel part of a larger, crowdsourced effort.


6 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing: Ancient Mayan, Genetic Mysteries, and Weapons of Mass Destruction

  1. djcoats says:

    Perhaps I’m the first to reply to your post since it so technologically heavy in nature. It is pretty wild that you can actually tie something so arcane like the writing of the Mayans to Playstations. Being able to decipher computer codes is certainly an extremely niche skill set, however, such skills basically run the lives of people living in developed countries. The combination of Playstation users and biological sciences just sounds like something that could created paradigm shift in the way research is conducted. I think it would just come down to recruiting enough qualified people to do this. (I think I understand it).

  2. That Playstation thing is kind of fantastic. I had no idea that the things had that much processing power, although it makes sense. It’s an awesome case of really diverse and completely unconnected crowdsourcing. I wonder how much of that is the future of crowdsourcing — allowing leftover resources to congregate in one location for use by a single source, because the leftover resources can all come from such different places.

  3. davidinmedia says:

    jonathan, not sure how else to get a hold of you. which apt do you live in? give me call on 386-517-3950. having a few people over for a bbq and wanted to see if you guys wanted to join…best, david

  4. davidinmedia says:

    that would be for tomorrow, saturday, after 5pm…

  5. Okay, the Mayan writing system part was awesome. But your example was not one you came up with and proposed a solution for — as the assignment asked. Instead you picked an existing case and told us about it. Which was not the assignment.

    I was interested to hear about the PlayStation project. It is similar to the famous SETI@home project, although that one uses home computers and not game consoles:

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