09 September 2007

A New Kind of Search Party

I spent an hour this morning looking for Steve Fossett.


First, a little background. Amazon.com has a program called the “Mechanical Turk.” It allows people to do tasks that human beings are better suited to accomplishing than computers are. For things like pattern recognition, matching, interpolation, and the like, our brains are still far superior to computers’ abilities. On Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, various tasks are “farmed out” on a volunteer basis. Certain companies and organizations pay a small amount for each Human Intelligence Task (HIT) that’s accomplished. (Not all of them pay, and the amounts are pitfully small. You won't want to do this to make money). The tasks might be something as simple as looking at a series of photographs and determining whether there’s a dog or a cat in each photo. This kind of work is repetitive, boring, and sometimes not as easy as you’d think. The point is that, with our current level of technology, human brains are still the only way to go for certain tasks. The Mechanical Turk program is actually a giant Research and Development platform for what will be the next generation of Artificial Intelligence.

So let’s say your family member has gone missing in the Nevada/California wilderness. You acquire some brand-new satellite imagery, put it on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, and make a HIT out of it. Now, thousands of people can help in the search, grid by grid. This is exactly what has taken place, and it’s a great idea (and a fascinating use of technology).

Each participant is assigned a random series of squares to visually search using Google Earth. (You must update your database with the new imagery overlay, of course. They show you how to do this). If you see something that might be a Bellanca Decathalon-sized airplane, or part of an airplane, you flag it and comment on why you think it’s worth checking out. For error-checking purposes, grid coordinates are assigned to multiple people.

If you want to participate, you can sign up at
http://www.mturk.com/. Then, after you sign in to the Mechanical Turk website, search for “Steve Fossett.”

Several things become apparent as you scan the landscape from above. First, there’s a lot of wilderness out there. Second, many things look like airplane parts when you’re really looking hard. Best wishes to the people who are actually out there, in helicopters and light airplanes, eyeballing the desert, forests, and steep canyons of northern California and western Nevada.