Posts Tagged ‘crowdsourcing’

Yes, eventually, it can be done!

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013 by Roberto Saracco

Some interesting discussion in Guadalajara at the kick-off workshop organised by IEEE to flank the CCD: Ciudad Creativa Digital of Guadalajara, a project aiming at revamping an old part of the city, attracting innovative enterprises, becoming a fertile ground for start ups and a place for people to live and enjoy.

Gilles Betis, Future Urban Life and Mobility Action Line Leader at the EIT ICT LABS make his point at the workshop. In the background  ideas are collected as post it...

Gilles Betis, Future Urban Life and Mobility Action Line Leader at the EIT ICT LABS make his point at the workshop. In the background ideas are collected as post it…

I gave a presentation of the Information Infrastructure, what it “can” mean and how to build it. The presentation, you’ll be able to find copy of the slides on the ICT LABS web site, was followed by a 2 hours discussion with Mexican participants to see what could be feasible and what not.

The first part of the discussion leaned on the pessimistic note: we don’t have open data, companies are secretive about their data, there are more convincing reason for keeping data closed than to open them. As discussion evolved people started to say that Open Data is the way to go and the discussion should focus on how to make this a reality, rather than on the reasons why this is not possible.

As an example it was noted that technology evolution makes it possibile to start gathering data as never before: one can place rubber mats in several places on sidewalk (they are dirty cheap) and collect info on pedestrian movement, data on how long people linger in a certain spot (relating this info on what may be going on there), data on what is the impact of goods showcased in shops in terms of attracting people and so on. One can use security cameras video to detect the emotions and moods of people and show it on a big screen. Placing sensors on poles to measure the reflection of light one can derive information on how many people are walking around … Providing free wifi in an area one can attract people and increase their use of apps, through which one can harvest further data.

This can happen bottom up, but of course a municipality that established an Open Data Framework would really increase the speed of adoption of an Information infrastructure.

Providing many “little” services, addressing a variety of aspects is crucial. You need creativity to exploit data in unexpected ways. Who better than youngster can do that: they are both producers and consumers of data and technology today provides them with the tools to create services, quickly and effectively.

Dynamisms and speed is important. Involving citizens in a continuously enriched urban ambient creates engagement. It is so much better to start small, but make it happen, than to wait for the big picture to take shape.

Seeing practical examples on how an Information Infrastructure can be created shifted the pessimistic mood to a much more optimistic one. This does not mean that everything just happens. There are several open questions and it surely requires a lot of work to make it happen, but it can be done!

Learning from Nature

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 by Roberto Saracco
Look at the pearls!

Look at the pearls!

In several of my posts, reflecting the approach we have taken at the Future Centre, I have reported on discoveries on Nature that can teach us new ways of “creating artefacts”. This is the case for this one.

I have just read that physicists at the university of Granada, Spain, have discovered why pearls are round, and why sometimes they are not!

When a physicists looks at a pearl necklace, apparently, he is not considering the neck they are resting on and whatever it is attached to it. Rather he is puzzling on why are pearls so perfectly round.

Indeed, pearls are the most perfect spheres you can find in Nature. On the other hand, sometimes they are not round at all! Why is it so?

It turns out that if you look at the nanostructure of a pearl surface you will discover that it actually looks like a ratchet. As it grows by subsequent deposition of layers it rotates in all direction, in a random way under the pressure of random “push” in the oyster. This randomness leads to a perfect spherical form.

On the other hand, if the seed of the pearl has some imperfections the random push can only rotate the forming pearl on one axes and that generates a symmetrical pearl with respect to that rotational axe.

the ratchet texture on the pearl surface leads to symmetrical random rotation

the ratchet texture on the pearl surface leads to symmetrical random rotation

If the pearl seed has several imperfection points there is no preferred rotation and it grows in what is called a baroque way.

Hence, the shape of a pearl is an emerging property of the nanotexture of the seed surface.

Scientists are considering this property to apply it in nanotechnology artefacts.

Interestingly, in the paper reporting the discovery the scientists are just saying that this knowledge should help in nanotech manufacturing but they do not know what should be the application field and therefore they ask the community of scientists to think about possible applications and share their thoughts. We are seeing crowd-sourcing taking hold also in the scientific community as a way to progress science and its application.

This is the magic on pervasive Internet, not in terms of infrastructure (which is needed) but in terms of “being” on the Internet, becoming part of a connectivity structure, not just being connected.

For many of us, particularly for grown up, we see Internet as a convenient way to connect to information, services and people. For Digital native Internet is part of their life, they are not connecting via Internet, they live in a connected space. And this is what the authors in their paper are hinting. Scientists have always relied on other scientists discovery to progress further, it used to be by exchanging letters with challenges (Tartaglia and Cardano – do you remember?- to come to the solution of 3rd and 4th degree equation), by talking at conferences (Hilbert and his 23 mathematical challenges… stated in the 1900 conference in Paris) or by publishing results of experiments (CERN…). Now Scientists are starting to become an ecosystem whose fabric is sustained by Internet and by living in a shared data and shared application ambient. It is a new paradigm, that is taking place also in the development of application, what is usually call the Open Software Framework.

The Gaia paradigm is becoming part of our life and a collective intelligence is emerging.

Bootstrapping biotechnology

Thursday, March 28th, 2013 by Roberto Saracco

We are entering a new era of understanding of Nature and we are leveraging this understanding in an unprecedented way. The sixty years that have passed since the discovery of the double helix have led to an amazing development of technology, software basically but also computational infrastructure, that have fuelled a growth of knowledge and tools.

A data sheet describing the characteristics of key sets of biological parts that can be integrated to form more complex parts. The one shown is from Canton published in Nature Biology.

A data sheet describing the characteristics of key sets of biological parts that can be integrated to form more complex parts. The one shown is from Canton published in Nature Biology.

This, in turns, accelerates understanding and  its leveraging.

Researchers have learnt to “cut and paste” genes to create new characteristics in living things, mostly bacteria so far. Now BIOFAB, a biotechnology company, is releasing a toolkit to let researchers to interact with genes and change them.

BIOFAB defines itself as a biological design-build facility and their goal is to create tools that would allow any person (let’s say a researcher) to develop biological structures.

One might imagine a future when one could sit at a computer screen and using their tools design a living being by connecting a set of building blocks, each one directly taken from a library and possibly modified to fit new needs.

What they have released  recently is a toolkit that can interact with the bacterium Escherichia Coli and control its genes, in a very precise manner.

By doing this one can steer the activities of the bacteria, and its behaviour, at whim.

Clearly the gap from controlling the expression of genes in a bacteria to controlling a multicellular organism is really big. Nevertheless, this is a small step in that direction, a step that was difficult to imagine just ten years ago.

Besides, this step is leading synthetic biology into an open collaborative space. What one researcher achieves becomes the starting point for another one. The first applications of this tool set is in the area of modifying cells to create new medicine or transform a bacteria into becoming useful in some endeavour (we can do that already through splicing but splicing is complex, difficult and costly).

The power of crowdsourcing

Sunday, March 17th, 2013 by Roberto Saracco

Google glasses are almost ready, they are being made available by Google to developers in the US and soon around the world. The big question now is if there can be a killer application that will drive their adoption.


Google Glass Foundry Hackathons

Google Glass Foundry Hackathons

Google is betting on crowdsourcing to discover one.

This is interesting. It is not a novelty, many companies have learnt to open up their products and let people all around the world to figure out what can be done with them. It is not just a way of lowering the investment and sharing the risk of innovation (open innovation).

It is a way to leverage on collective intelligence, and this is a step further with respect to having many sources of ideas. In fact, the ideas, and their implementation, are just a starting point. What happened is the circulation of the first batch of ideas is stimulating new ones, and the signs of adoption by the market fuel evolution in a given direction, perfecting what the market appreciates most. And all of this happens in Internet times, with a life cycle of innovation measured in weeks, not in years.

This approach may be crucial to create a completely new market. Google aims at the mass market, like Apple did for the iTunes and iPhone. And this would be a completely new market and you either hit on a killer application (quite unlikely) or you come up with such a large slate of applications that everyone can find some that makes sense for them, at least sufficient sense to drive buying AND use. Actually it is not enough to convince people buying the glasses. It is crucial that they are going to use them.

This is not a business of selling something, so that once a person has bought the product you can forget about it. Here the biz model is both sell AND use. The use, in fact, support indirect revenue streams, that are the ones Google is targeting. They are in the ads biz and that biz needs usage.
It is unlikely, at least this is my opinion, that Google will make significant money from their glasses. To do that they would need to sell many and to make significant margin on each. But that means higher price that in turns will hamper sale.

So I rather imagine a razor thin margin (even subsidy… may be) and revenues deriving from use. This requires apps and catchy ones, over a very wide audience. Going crowdsource is really the way to go!

Welcome to a new World!

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013 by Roberto Saracco

bacteria_in_bodyFew days ago I stumbled on µBiome a start up that wants to map the biome of humans. What is a Biome? Well, it turns out that we live in symbioses with an overwhelming number of bacteria, actually scientists believe they are in proportion of 10 to 1: for every cell that we have there are 10 bacteria living with us. This makes for trillions of them (you might even claim that you are not overweight, it is the bunch of bacteria you are carrying that are loading the scale!).

In the drawing on the left you can see the distribution of bacteria in the various part of our body.

Doctors are speculating on the significance of these symbiotic life and some believes that they may answer some questions on health issues we may have. Hence the importance in understanding our fellows living our life.

µBiome wants to create a map of these bacteria and for this is seeking support from all of us (or at least from a significant number of us).

Apart from the interest in the Biome, what really moved me to post this blog is that µBiome is using crowdsourcing to get funding AND to get data!

They have set up their call on Indiegogo asking for our support in term of donation. Additionally they are offering to send us a kit for swabbing our body and sending it back to them. They will analyse the swabs and detect the bacterial flora we have. This will be reported to us and it will be used to create a map of the biome.

This is something new. They are basically involving people to do research skipping all the issues they would have if as a company they would come to you asking for analysing your biome. With this approach you are becoming part of the research team.

It is really a new world where you can get funding for your research on the Internet (this has become common) and you can get the data for your research by involving people.

I really invite you to follow the links and think at the implication of this new approach made possible by the Internet.

What’s going on?

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013 by Roberto Saracco

Human beings (as well as several animal species) have a knack to get a feeling that something is going on by observing how other people are behaving. In particular our brains are very well in tracking the gaze of other people and whenever they detect a convergence of “gazing” they get arouse and focus their attention on that converging point.

This is how in a social gathering, at a party or in a square, at the office or at a metro station, we are continuously scanning other people’s gaze (and if someone is staring at us, making us the convergent point of gazing we rapidly get uneasy…).

Robots have a difficult time in understanding what is going on. For them any single input has basically the same importance and they have to work out what could really be important. This has been the issue that some researchers at the Carnegie Mellon Robotic Institute have tried to solve.

To do that they tried to understand how people are tracking attention in a crowd by placing a camera on each person to track their gaze and computing any convergence of gazing.

This, as shown in the figure below, produces some maps of the social space highlighting those areas where there is a convergence of gazing.


Interestingly, it turns out that people gazes intersect not just when there is something they are looking at but also whenever there is someone they are listening to. This provides the information about who if attracting the ears of people, not just their eyes.

The era of social robots is not too far away. Expect to see them mingle in our social circles starting in the next decade and become commonplace in the following ones. At that point we will start to wonder which is which, and that might be embarrassing…

Interested in inventing life?

Saturday, July 7th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

The understanding of the code of life, DNA, is progressing through huge hurdles that are being tackled in amazingly ingenious ways. What could due far from telecommunications and ICT than DNA? Wrong. ICT has already been a fundamental tool in sequencing the genome and in understanding the structure of DNA (and protein) molecules.

Now I stumbled upon an applications of ICT to design RNA molecules (RNA is a close cousin on DNA and actually some scientists believe DNA was derived from RNA so that actually the life on Earth begun with RNA). Besides, RNA is crucial in connecting DNA instructions to the actual implementation of proteins since those DNA sequences are copied by RNA strings and carried over to the manufacturing sites within the cell cytoplasm.

You absolutely need to try out EteRNA. It is a video game, to be played on your computer that guides you in the development of RNA molecules. You learn about the “rules of the game” and you start developing molecules in the virtual space. Once you have proved your skill (reaching 10,000 points) you can enter into a new space, the Lab. There you learn to use actual labs equipment to synthesize RNA molecules and you can start designing them as a scientist would do.

Every two weeks researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon pick up 4 to 16  molecules designed by players of EteRNA and actually synthesize them. So players have a chance to see their designed molecules come to life!

Now, this is a very clever way to multiply the research effort into developing RNA molecules by enrolling amateur researchers all around the world. So far there are over 38,000 amateur researchers playing EteRNA and many RNA molecules invented by them have been synthesized. It is crowd sourcing applied to research, and very sophisticated one indeed.

It really amazes me how ICT can harvest collective intelligence. We are really moving into a future where all human intelligence, the collective intelligence of the human race, will be on tap, ready to be applied to a variety of issues. EteRNA proves that no task is too difficult to be tackled by thousands of people. Telecommunications and information Technology bring intelligence together and make it usable on demand.

Ultimate Brain Quest

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Ever heard of the “Ultimate Brain Quest” project? It is a project initiated at the MIT by Sebastien Seung aiming at creating a complete map of the neuron connections in a human brain. For the time being it is focussing on a rat brain but do not underestimate the challenge, even at a rat brain level.

A single cubic millimeter of brain material contains some 100,000 neurons and about 1 billion connections! Examining this ball of twine would require an (estimated) hundred thousands person-years. So what can be done, given the fact that so far a completely automatic way for unraveling these connections has not been found?

Researchers at the MIT have decided to leverage on the willingness of thousands, and they hope soon millions of people, to participate in the quest and have developed an on line tool, eye wire, that let people analyze the tiny slices of brain (1/1000 of a hair thickness) placed on the website and color the slices one after the other thus creating the image of a neuron connection. This process, difficult to be performed by a machine, is reasonably easy for the human eye and has already produced results.

A neuron connection singled out through crowd sourcing in eye wire

There are of course plenty of wonders in this project, a lot of technology and plenty of debate if even assuming that a complete mapping of a human brain will ever be feasible we may end up with plenty of data (storing the data about a single cubic mm of brain matter requires about 1 PB, a complete human brain would then approach 1ZB of storage!) but very little meaning (by the way, how can we be sure that the wiring of one brain is basically the representative for all other brains?). If you like to explore these issues you may want to read Connectome, by Sebastien Seung. In the book he makes it clear that the idea is to derive meaning from the observation of the wiring and use this meaning to guide in the understanding of the brain. At that point the wiring can become (almost) irrelevant and researchers could focus on the semantics of the brain.

The reason for my post on this subject, however, is because of the use of crowd sourcing that is being made. The web is really providing us with a tremendous intelligence-power ready to be tapped. And some researchers are already starting to leverage that. As  some city planners are doing, asking people to tell what is good and what is wrong as they move around the city, as politicians are starting to do to prepare a legislation program, as doctors are doing to become aware of potential epidemics or dangerous substances…

The web, and each of us, is changing the world.

Pebble: a new wave of wrist watches

Monday, April 23rd, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

I posted just yesterday news on NinjaBlocks and how they have been funded through Kickstart. Now let me give you another example of an idea being funded through Kickstart that has reached almost 6 million $ in funding: Pebble. And they asked for just 100,000 $! The same observations I made on NinjaBlocks in terms of this new way (crowd sourcing financing I would call it) apply here.

But for Pebble I want to share some thoughts on what it means in terms of new ways of conceiving a product. But first take a look at Pebble so that you know what I am talking about:

Pebble will be sold at a 150$ price tag. That’s not peanuts for a plastic watch whose screen is made of eInk. What makes it worth the price (at least for the inventors and for the people funding it) is that it creates an open environment, an ecosystem, where people can create applications making it a continuously evolving device. Much more than a watch, as you have seen on the video! And what you see there is just a fraction of the many applications that will surely be invented if this watch is going to be a market success (the more successful, the more people will develop apps and in a never ending spiral the more successful it will become).

Pebble talks to iPhone and to Androids smart phones and makes use of the capabilities they have, like connecting to the web, detecting motion (through the gyroscope all smart phones have), detecting location and so on. This is the first “smart” new way of creating objects. Rather than packing features in the object let it discover what is available in its environment. This leads to cheaper objects that at the same time are reacher in functionality.

Secondly, rather than inventing all the features, Pebble comes with just a few of them. The crucial ones are those that let Pebble grow over time by getting apps created by anyone. It creates an ecosystem and leverages the strength of hundreds of thousands of developers (that over time will become millions…) and their creative genius.

Thirdly, Pebble is one of the first objects to embed communications and processing capabilities “just in case”, that is for supporting communication with the ambient and features that have not been conceived at its design time. In the future my bet is that many objects (the trends is towards “all” the objects) will be designed in this way. And as this happens we will see a new layer being created to make it possible the portability of apps across a variety of objects. This is an intermediation layer and I think it may become to Telecom Operators what today is the network, an important source of revenues.

BioEngineering Home made

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Looking at the huge number of apps developed in such a short time one has to recognize that opening up their development to the world has unleashed a tremendous wealth. Some of these apps are quite useless, some are ugly but a few are intriguing to the point that several people, including your truly, have become addicted.

The manifesto for open bio engineering

Other areas, like hardware design, are benefitting from the involvement of a broad audience, what is known as crowd sourcing. However, I was surprised to read that this “open approach” can be pursued also in the area of bio-engineering.

The possibility is the result of the substantial reduction in cost of bio-engineering.

According to Cathal Garvey, a PhD student that decided to ride the wave of open bio-engineering, you can set up a bio engineering lab in your garage for about 4,000$. That is well within the reach of many pockets, and this is the reason stated by George Church, a genetic professor at the Harward Medical School: the cost of decoding the genome is decreasing five times faster than the cost of chips (Moore’s law). In other words every 4 months the cost halves.

There have been amazing progress in speed and cost (cost decrease of course). Whilst the Human Genome Project had a cost of 10 dollars per base pair (there are about 1 billion of them in the human genome) by 2010 this cost has dropped to 1 dollar per million of base pair, a factor of 10 million over a period of 10 years! By comparison the Moore’s law result in a factor of 1 thousand over that same period.

So far the progress is the result of several techniques and standardization (wiring with building blocks). The next step is expected by opening up the bio-engineering to crowd sourcing. Whereas so far the focus has been on improving one process now the focus becomes in making parallel and cross correcting processes possible (similar to what happens in Wikipedia).

Clearly the stakes, and risk, are potentially greater and I am no expert in evaluating them. What impresses me is the approach being taken, moving from what may be considered a step by step value chain to an ecosystem.