Humans teaching computers how to categorize

July 24, 2007

It’s not a million miles from the taxonomies that arise from Del.icio.os and the like, but BoingBoing points us to a nifty article in Wired about humans teaching computers about things for their own selfish reasons – largely in this case, entertainment.

“People are good at figuring out what’s attractive, and computers are good at quickly searching and finding,” von Ahn says. “You put them together, and bang!”

This is “human computation,” the art of using massive groups of networked human minds to solve problems that computers cannot. Ask a machine to point to a picture of a bird or pick out a particular voice in a crowd, and it usually fails. But even the most dim-witted human can do this easily. Von Ahn has realized that our normal view of the human-computer relationship can be inverted. Most of us assume computers make people smarter. He sees people as a way to make computers smarter.

…Nifty, eh?

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Bottom-up city-wide Wi-Fi: We-Fi

June 20, 2007

I shall keep my eye closely on the future of WeFi. In their own words, here’s what they do:

“WeFi makes WiFi easy. Our software makes it easy for you to find and connect to WiFi networks. With WeFi, each user contributes to the rest of the community by using the client and discovering more networks around. All this is reported to a centralized server and shared seamlessly among all users, resulting in easy connection. With our software you can also map your favorite hotspots, find your friends, share your WiFi with other WeFi members and do many other cool things.”

Cunning stuff, and I wish them every success.

I predict lawsuits on the horizon, though, when companies offering hugely expensive WiFi in hotels, airports, and cafes start complaining that they can’t compete with free and better services…

…A cynic? Moi?

Well, they started doing just that when the city of Philadelphia considered free city-wide WiFi for its residents a few years back (Here‘s what Lessig said about it at the time.) Mind you, I think they might have a harder time complaining about a population than a city council. Here’s hoping, anyway…


localised systems – currency

June 5, 2007

I first heard of people just starting up their own currencies when I read about the Ithaca Hour in a newspaper a few years back. (official page link, Wikipedia link) Now it seems that Totnes in Devon is following similar lines, according to this article on BBC News.

A south Devon town has taken a step towards having its own currency after a month-long experiment.

Three hundred Totnes pounds were printed in March for circulation only in local outlets.

Eighteen shops joined Transition Town Totnes (TTT), a new group campaigning for a more self-sufficient community.

Marjana Kos, of TTT, said: “It’s keeping wealth here. It’s keeping local trade alive and supporting local businesses.”

Louise King, manager of the Riverford farm shop in Totnes, said: “We like our own products, so it just seems right to have our own currency.”

What I consistently find myself being surprised by is that people don’t just create bottom up systems of production and distribution for their own little crafty creations – food, art and so on – they are quite happy to take on such massively important systems as currencies and education.

20th century thinking would suggest that a tiny currency only accepted in a few stores in a single town is a bad, or at least fairly useless, idea. Evidently this is not the case, though, as many towns around the world are creating their own versions of these systems. Once again, the ease with which information about such systems can be shared between people keen on implementing them is paramount – step forward the internet. Take a bow, sir – good work.

What’s also interesting to me is that so many of these activities are not done in direct competition with the existing status quo. The Pound Sterling is still legal in Totnes, and they are doing nothing illegal in creating their own currency. The two systems work perfectly happily side by side, and any complications in configuring exchange rates are sorted out not by top-down decree from Westminster, but at the point of sale by those involved in the upkeep of the system – The administrators, directors, and end users are all the same person. And people don’t chose to use the Ithaca Hour because the US Dollar has failed; they chose to do so because the Hour has its own value quite independent of the Dollar – the warm, fuzzy, and personal value of supporting your local economy and of membership in a community. These things aren’t worth much in 20th century terms of monetary value, but it’s been shown time and time again that money really can’t buy you happiness.

It’s barely a step from bartering and exchanges of services, really, and these transactions are also very popular in the online world. I myself have designed and printed Tshirts for people in exchange for them writing me a css file or renting me an online domain. We could have worked out specific monetary values of these goods, but because the element of personal friendship already existed, it was easier to make the transition without resorting to currency – a middle man defined by a top-down institution from without.

And you know what? That kind of transaction, one which relies so much on human aspects of inter-personal relation, not only feels good, but it can actually be more efficient. And a look the music distribution industry will tell you what happens when a more efficient system comes along…

All this bartering and local systems with no hope of understaning or control from without: It’s frankly medieval, but it might well be positively medieval.


Firewalls

February 28, 2007

photo of West Bank wall by FREEPAL

In a wonderful example of crossover between meatspace and cyberspace linguistics, the always excellent Global Guerillas blog by John Robb has a post entitled Nation-state firewalls. Robb lists some of the larger fences, walls and barriers around the world designed to limit and control the transitions of people between the two sides of the barriers in question.

Of course, the ‘firewall’ is a term originally for something in physical space, but in most people’s minds these days I think we consider it a ‘cyberspace’ term. The two have similar functions, of course – namely to limit the transition of stuff like data or people – but it’s interesting to see them being used interchangably here.

Question: just what is the difference people and data, anyway? I think I know people I’ve ‘met’ online but I’ve really only seen the data they produce. There’s certainly more to a person than just their intellectual output (just look at David Beckham) but how much more must vary an awful lot.


Internet access as a right

February 6, 2007

An article on the BBC News website today covers a story about the Indian President last year outlining his future hopes for free Internet access for everyone in India. Ambitious, non? Not only is the sheer logistical challenge of such a dream almost insurmountable, but any capitalists out there will be turning into enraged beetroots as we speak. Just think of all the lost revenue!

To start, let’s look at the first complaint. Doubters are right to point out the mountains of difficulty anyone attempting such a technological feat wouild encounter. But the Indians have done it before. In 2004 the state of Gujarat announced that they intended to have electricity in all their villages within two years. All the other Indian states had a good laugh at this claim, as did much of the world, but by golly they actually managed it in the end. With electricity now piped to all Gujarati villages, businesses and economic growth has flourished in previously declining rural areas. This growth means an increased likelihood of better health care and living standards, and of course gives the villagers of Gujarat a good reason to be smug.

…But can it be done with internet connections, and is it fair to deprive telecons of a business that some might say is rightly theres? Lawrence Lessig, copyfighter extraordinaire and founder of the Creative Commons, wrote about similar arguments a few years ago in Philadelphia:

“In September, I reported that Philadelphia was considering funding a WiFi service for the city. Sixty percent of the citizens have no access to broadband. The city elders believe that’s no way to enter the 21st century.

But as Public Knowledge now reports, a bill on the Governor’s desk would now make it impossible for Philadelphia to offer such a service, because it “competes” with private businesses offering the same service.

So, let’s see: If I open a private street light company, selling the photons my lights give off, can Philadelphia offer “free” street lights? Or does the fact that Guards To Go offers services in Philadelphia mean we need to disband the Philly police department?”

If governments and councils are there to fundamentally ensure the enrichment of the lives of those people who elect them, how can they not at least consider something so useful as internet access for all? In suburban London, unlike rural India, there are plenty of businesses out there who can supply you with broadband access, but that shouldn’t mean that democratic organisations can’t.


Liberating WiFi access

February 6, 2007

This is such a neat idea.

WiFi Liberator

A gadget which plugs into your computer and re-broadcasts for free the WiFi account that you’re paying to use. Now I know a lot of enraged suburbanites who would gawp at this kind of anarchistic generosity, but when you think about it, the guys who invented this device do rather have a point…

Goals

The ultimate goal with the Wifi Liberator project is through Open Source distribution, to eventually reach a high enough usage and penetration rate that all pay-per-use wireless networks will begin to free their access to everyone. Since the monetary amounts associated with providing wireless access is inexpensive as the techology becomes more ubiquitous, the need to “charge” for this access is becoming less important and cost effective. Although we are still charged for basic utilities such as water, electricity, gas, and others, the amounts associated with providing internet access are dropping at an exponential rate. This project aims to make this low cost apparent as well as the increasing tensions of keeping people “out” of these networks.

Of course, most paid WiFi access tends to be in large public buildings like hotels or airport lounges, or perhaps in the smaller urban social spaces of coffee houses and bars. Not really a suburban issue, perhaps? Well, it’s an interesting project nonetheless, and I do like the idea of encouraging the sharing of your bandwidth wealth, rather than encouraging fear of your neighbours and what they might do with your precious info-pipes.