Sunday, May 16, 2010

Saving the world with computer games

There was a talk on TED recently about using games to solve real world problems which is not a new idea, of course, but one which is not yet utilized to its full extent. There is Google Image Labeler and similar tools, however I don't usually hear about other, more complex applications.

For example, imagine a game of fighting the AIDS virus. The main enemy of the game has similar capabilities as the virus and the players can use the tools we have at our disposal to fight it. The goal is to defeat the enemy any way they can and if they succeed researchers can analyze the strategies of successful players when looking for new approaches in virus research. This way people who have no experience or interest in virology could help solve problems in the field without even knowing it if the problem is effectively and engagingly modeled (disguised) as a game.

Modeling the problem in a useful way is not easy and attacking the whole AIDS-cure problem in one game is probably not the way to go. AIDS research is a complex area which can be broken down to numerous small problems, so these individual smaller problems could be modeled as games. Even if only a partial breakthrough can be achieved with these games it can be a great leap forward in fighting of the disease. And AIDS is only an example, this approach could be used to solve any problem if we get the modeling right.

After watching the TED talk mentioned above I was a bit disappointed. The speaker came up with examples like a game about saving the world from oil shortage. This can also be useful, but I doubt the average gamer will be particularly excited to play with it. The important thing is to dress up the game as something else. Make it an RPG in which the gamers can be in their usual environment and they don't even have to know they are solving hard problems while playing.

Naturally, modeling the task in a fantasy setting is not trivial, but it pays off in the long run if it makes it possible to employ lots of young and motivated minds to solve hard problems. I can image a World of Warcraft extension which adds a new mission to the game modeling some problem with monsters and castles and such. It doesn't matter if it's hard. Dedicated players like hard tasks and it can even motivate them even more to make it to the end.

I don't know if somebody somewhere is already working on a game like this, but I hope so, because then in the not so near future the most pressing problems of the world can be solved by amateurs playing at home without even knowing about it. It will be like SETI@Home, only this application will use the idle capacity of human brains instead of computers and the user of the brain will even have fun as a side effect. :)

Friday, February 26, 2010

This man had no arms, no legs, but he had 4 wives and 72 mistresses

Matthias Buchinger was a remarkable man. He was born without hands or legs, but he accomplished more than most of us.

He had 4 wives, countless children and mistresses. He was a musician, an engraver and a magician. Can you beat this?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Do you have a problem with nudity?

Most of use don't like to be nude in public. The naked body is something to be kept hidden and shown only on special occasions. This BBC documentary investigates the reasons behind our view of nudity:

They collected a group of average people and subjected them to various tests involving nakedness. I don't really think someone who disrobes on TV is an average person. Do you?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How people in Tibet cut up the dead and feed them to the vultures

In Tibet the ground is hard and trees are scarce, so burning bodies of dead people is not an option. What do you do then? Feed them to the vultures, of course!

The trained "undertakers" cut up the bodies and the vultures can hardly wait to get to the meat. Wikipedia has pictures too, but consider yourself warned, they are quite graphic. It's interesting nevertheless.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How to hold better meetings using a bell?

Have you ever been to a meeting? If so, you know they can be extremely boring, sometimes they take forever and generally they don't always bring out the best from the participants mentally.

In a Google talk the presenter shared his insights about meditation and he suggested using a meditation bell in the first 5 minutes of the meeting. People don't have to do anything, just listen to the bell and be aware of the presence of others, and it will have a big impact on the quality of the meeting. Here's the relevant part of the talk:

If you are not afraid your colleagues will think you are strange then suggest your boss to use such a bell before the meeting. He or she may even appreciate the idea. :)