Friday, 23 September 2011

Gamers boldly go where no scientist has gone before

Sarah Lux

Mothers and girlfriends worldwide have long yelled at errant sons and partners for being overly fixated on a video game.

This week, however, a group of gamers and scientists demonstrated that proficiency in World of Warcraft may be worth more than the geek cred it achieves.

Nature Structural & Molecular Biology has published an advance online copy of a paper that explains how enjoyment of and technical skills in playing video games can be harnessed to achieve remarkable outcomes in scientific research.

The scientists, hailing from the US, Poland and the Czech Republic, challenged players of the competitive protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease. Scientists researching antiretroviral AIDS medication had tried and failed for years to map the protein with the requisite level of detail using more conventional scientific means. These particular scientists thought the Foldit gamers might have more success.

The experiment worked. In just three weeks, the gamers succeeded in generating models of sufficient quality to meet the scientists' needs. The result is incredible, and may lead to a significant advancement in AIDS research.

More broadly, considerable attention should be paid to the importance and ingenuity of this collaborative model for research, which harnesses skills possessed by ordinary humans to empower their meaningful contribution to the scientific process.

Foldit, the game in question, describes itself as "a revolutionary new computer game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research". Understanding the structure of a protein is central to working out how to target it with drugs. This process is difficult and elusive, as the Foldit website explains:

The number of different ways even a small protein can fold is astronomical... Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans' puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.
The program builds on the concept behind a predecessor, Stanford University's folding@home, which networks participants' computers to create a supercomputer which works through possible folding patterns. Foldit adds to this concept the intuition and puzzle-solving abilities of human gamers to speed up and improve the results. When directed at particular scientific problems, this amalgamation of human and computer capabilities can achieve significant results, as demonstrated by the AIDS study.

This remarkable use of technology corresponds to a broader trend that has accompanied the increasing dominance of the internet in our lives and interactions. Unprecedented access to information, thanks to the internet, has substantially addressed the information asymmetry that used to mean ordinary people needed access expensive experts to make decisions and achieve certain goals. Almost all of us go to Google as our first port of call on almost every day-to-day question, and what we find includes the opinions, recommendations and warnings of an enormous unnamed audience who can help us solve our problem.

Examples of the trend are infinite. Travel review websites like TripAdvisor let you ask questions of a million strangers you never even knew had travelled to your intended location. Flickr, now with an in-built Creative Commons licensing system, connects you with talented photographers who will licence incredible works for your personal or professional use. And although the countless websites and forums containing basic medical information certainly do not replace the role of physicians, they do make for well informed patients who no longer have to defer all control over their health decisions to clinical experts.

Outsourcing tasks and questions to the millions of people connected to the internet is increasingly acknowledged as a legitimate problem-solving model. Crowdsourcing, the outsourcing of a task to an undefined group of people through an open call, can be arranged informally (for example, by a call for assistance over Facebook) or through companies like InnoCentive, which connect those with a problem (Seekers) with those who have solutions (Solvers), who are rewarded with cash prizes for proposing the right fix. Currently on InnoCentive, a novel idea for the development of glucose-responsive insulin may win you US$100,000, while a photo reflecting "the World in 2012" may result in the award of a $1000 prize. Crowdsourcing provides access to an entire world's worth of experts and eliminates costs of participation. As it is developed and refined as a model for various types of projects, it can only grow in popularity and impact.

Foldit is one of those refinements. Rather than issuing a completely open call, the scientists (essentially, Seekers) identified a particular group (Solvers) possessing skills the scientists lacked, and turned the project into a competitive game to make participation attractive.

While technology is so often lamented and lambasted for harming our relationships – lovers text rather than talk, friends chat online instead of meeting, kids engage in multi-player online role-play rather than kicking around a ball – the internet has a powerful ability to connect people, with substantial personal, professional, societal and now scientific implications.

And just think – if gamers can actually help to cure AIDS, what might be the value of your voice in the crowd?

This article was originally published here on The Punch.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Once more unto the breach:* Printing the next revolution

Matthew Tracey

3D printing will change your world.

With that bombshell out of the way, let's work out how and why.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing technology, is very similar to traditional 2D printing. 2D printers overlay ink on paper to produce physical representations of a digital file. 3D printers use similar technology but utilise metals, plastics and even food as their 'ink'. Where traditional printers could use a variety of file types (such as .doc, .jpeg or .html) to produce a printed page, 3D printers use computer-aided design (CAD) files that contain the physical specifications of the object to be printed. 3D printers use these files to construct an exact copy of the object, layer by layer. The software in the printer transforms a CAD file containing the dimensions of 3D object into slices. So, if you were printing a scale model of the Empire State Building, the printer would squirt out layer upon layer so as to construct the model from the ground floor to the point. In combination, these layers produce a tangible 3D object.

3D printing in action

Questioning 100 years of manufacturing history

The history of manufacturing is essentially a history of economies of scale. Revolutionised by the production methods of the Model T, Ford utilised scale in such a way as to reduce the marginal costs of production with each and every finished vehicle. At least theoretically, large-scale manufacturing means lower production costs and, in turn, lower purchase prices for consumers.

Let us be daring for a moment and dispense with one hundred years of manufacturing theory and practice. What if marginal costs were constant instead of depreciative? How would that change how we operate as a society?

Say for example you're at home and you've just finished dinner. You're loading all of your dirty dishes into the dishwasher and you find a broken locking mechanism that keeps the squall inside the dishwasher otherwise contained. Instead of sending for a replacement part from the manufacturer and waiting the requisite time for it to arrive, imagine downloading the CAD file from the manufacturer's website and printing off a replacement. Online technology blog Ars Technica has opined that just as online shopping made bricks-and-mortar retail stores appear quaint, 3D printing will do the same in respect of waiting for shipping to arrive from an online retailer. Importantly, 3D printing means that the cost of producing the first object is the same as the cost of producing the thousandth. This equation is perfect for individual consumers who only need one object.

The response from industry and what lies ahead

The rights associated with patents, copyrights, registered designs and trademarks could be infringed through 3D printing. For example, several websites currently offer unauthorised replicas of designer goods in CAD files for download. the3dstudio offers a CAD file of a Mario Bellini Ultrabellini chair for US$20 where a set of four authentic chairs retails for in excess of US$1000.

Unlike Sony in respect of VHS and Napster in respect of MP3s, rights holders have not yet brought 3D printing under any real fire. This is partly due to the lack of consumer-priced devices in the marketplace. However, since websites such as the3dstudio essentially operate as a vehicle similar to Napster (in that they provide a central source for the distribution of authorised and non-authorised material), legal intervention is increasingly likely. Analogous to the recent iiNet litigation, there is a risk that any site which hosts CAD files could be the subject of secondary infringement and authorisation claims. Like YouTube in response to Viacom, online distribution portals may need to have infringement detection and take-down mechanisms in place in order to assuage the appetites of litigious rights holders. However, like many industries' adaptation to new technologies, there will inevitably be winners and losers.

The scope of 3D printing is set to expand to compromise other traditional aspects of mass manufacturing. By way of example, Cornell University has had some success at producing food with 3D printers. The ramifications of printing food will stretch far and wide and will undoubtedly cause us to reconsider how we think about farming and famine.

The internet has ideologically entrenched our demand to have anything anytime anywhere. Traditionally, this demand related only to information. It is now clear, however, that in the future we will be able to print our cake and eat it too.

*'Once more unto the breach' is from the 'Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' speech of Shakespeare's Henry V, Act III, 1598.

Video by 3DCreationLab, published under the standard YouTube licence.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The microchipping of people and the uberveillance trajectory

Associate Professor Katina Michael

First came i-mode and then the iBook. Next the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Is it only a matter of time before we see the iPlant suddenly make its debut onto the global market? This is a real possibility for your future: a subdermal microchip implant that will potentially give you ubiquitous connexity: always on, always with you, 24x7x365.

The term “uberveillance”, coined by MG Michael in 2005, is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as an omnipresent electronic surveillance facilitated by technology that makes it possible to embed surveillance devices in the human body. In that same year, the Parliament of Australia’s Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs published: "The Real Big Brother: Inquiry into the Privacy Act 1988”. Chapter three on “emerging technologies” addresses the role that microchip implants in humans could play in the future.

The idea of implanting technology into people is not new. The first implantable cardiac pacemaker was created in 1958. Since then, we have seen the introduction of the cochlear implant to help the deaf to hear and the brain pacemaker to aid those suffering with epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, major depression and other diseases.

However, human implant technology is getting cheaper, easier to access and looks increasingly like it is going to be part of your everyday future life.

So-called “do-it-yourself implantees”, like Jonathan Oxer of Melbourne and Joe Wooller of Perth, have had implants inserted into their bodies using a short procedure and is similar to getting one’s cat or dog chipped.  Oxer modified his house so that his implant could be used to personalise settings in his home.  Wooller can open the doors to his house, car and motorbike with a swipe of his hand.

The microchip implant, most commonly a passive radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag, carries a unique pin that identifies the chip. How does this let you open a door? An antenna in close proximity triggers the RFID tag embedded in the body and an ID is transmitted to a reader, which grants access to the implantee (but may also grant access to a potential hacker).

Opening doors using a unique RFID tag is elementary when compared to the role that microchip implants play in brain pacemakers. But the potential for implanting citizens with microchip technology has been considered to be beneficial on several fronts. Proponents of microchipping people often state that implants would signal the end of credit card fraud, losing your keys, kidnapping, even a partial solution to reducing carbon emissions. The most popular argument is often connected to national security. This is despite the reality that RFID is the most insecure ID technology in the market. The loss of privacy in any of these or other contexts is an issue which needs to continually be addressed.

Microchips are set to bring new life to a whole gambit of control applications. It was only a few months ago that wearable GPS monitoring devices were embraced by the Queensland State Government for use by sufferers of mental illness and, later, sex offenders. Australian cricketers have been using body wearable technologies to record their match fitness levels and productivity since 2006. We are now talking about the mainstream commercialisation of such technology solutions, along with a movement from wearable to implantable technology. Microchips will provide us with the ability to locate, track and monitor people and provide data such as longitude and latitude coordinates of an individual down to a metre, as well as their speed, distance, time stamps, altitude, direction, temperature, heart rate, pulse rate and other physiological measures.

RFID implants for humans are now clearly on the political agenda. Recently, South Australia’s Police Commissioner Mal Hyde stated that there were quite a few different groups of people he’d like to see microchipped. And Sunshine Coast MP Peter Wellington was widely cited as saying that he would like to see child sex offenders microchipped.

The question is how long it will take for integrated solutions based on microchip implants to surface in everyday applications and how the law will deal with the continued rise of new and disruptive technologies which have the capacity to change just about everything. The problem is that, in many instances, legislation will offer few permanent or secure solutions, leaving the question open to the broad spectrum of ethics and debates involving difficult moral judgments.

Photo by ONT Design, made available by a Creative Common licence via Flickr.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Distributed and anonymous: our say, our way on the Internet

Luke Giuliani

The distributed nature of the Internet is, I think, one of its greatest assets. It was definitely one of the main design considerations when ARPANET was first established. This non-centralised design has carried through with the way that services have treated user contribution, starting with modes like IRC and BBS, through to their modern equivalents like social networks and even more broadly any site that relies on user generated content. The option for anonymity in contribution has been omnipresent, if varying in degree. Of course whether you think this is good or bad depends highly on your point of view, in the same way that one's opinion of the whistleblower depends on whether you are the victim or the culprit.

With the growth of the internet as a primary communication channel, we have seen a more subtle result of this same distributed nature; a lack of a power of proscription. This lack of control has often led to an uptake of services in proportion to the risk averseness of the institution. Thus individuals and small businesses are quick to jump on the online bandwagon, but often government entities and decision makers - people with more to lose - are slower. Part of this is also a subtle transition in publishing power. Decision makers have historically had a "right-to-proof"; "I want to see that article before it goes to print" is a standard condition on working with the PR teams of politicians or big business. This control of information is in many ways antithetical to the publishing anarchy of the Internet.

In recent years, however, the invisible hand has pushed. Too many citizens consume too much of their information from (and thus base their decisions on) the Internet for decision makers to ignore, or even conditionally accept. Now PR teams have added "run your social media presence for you" to the list of services tendered. This has had an interesting result. We now have decision makers trying to control what is an inherently uncontrolled system.

We've seen this directly at OurSay, a project I am a part of, which connects decision makers with citizens. OurSay is a web based platform where citizens can ask questions of a decision maker and vote on other users questions that they think are important. Each user gets 7 votes, so they can use them all up in one go, or spread them around. After an OurSay question session closes, we go and get the answers to the top questions from the decision maker and put it up on the site. The interesting bit here is that without a doubt, everybody we talk to about answering questions voted for on OurSay asks: "But what happens if the top question is against my views?".

The idealist in me answers: answer it anyway! You don't get to be in a position of power without having to answer difficult questions sometimes. If the question asks "In what ways are you similar to a chimp?", tell them you share 96% of the same DNA. How about a question asking a decision-maker to back up policy with hard commitment? What about curlier ones, like asking the CEO of Telstra his thoughts on the environmental consequences of printing millions of copies of the Yellow Pages each year? (go here for the answer to that one.) We at OurSay have worked with all parts of the political or issue spectrum to try and get some really substantial questions asked of the people up the top. OurSay essentially provides a platform where the contribution of individuals is metered through the mechanism of voting. It is a compromise between the control desired by decision makes and the everyone-can-say-whatever-they-want model of the Internet.

OurSay provides one model of how relationships between decision makers and citizens might evolve in the future. People will expect and demand greater interaction with their policymakers. Additionally, the Internet has enabled the provision and consumption of information at phenomenal levels. (I must have opened up a browser at least 20 times just in the writing of this post.) I hope that this increased demand for interaction and increased levels of information accessibility will be symbiotically beneficial, resulting in leaders that are responsive to citizens and citizens who are informed and proactive about the issues they care about.

Let's face it, the Internet is a scary place. Voice your opinion and at some point you are likely to be misconstrued. At worst, you'll probably be ridiculed for what you say with varying levels of constructiveness. How much more scary if you are somebody with something to lose. The trick will be how to find the right balance of accountability, accessibility, honesty, privacy and transparency.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Welcome to The Social Interface

The Editors

Our experience of the world is mediated through technology. Technology affects our access to and analysis of information, the extent to which we are monitored, the composition of the air, the people with whom we connect and the length of our lives, among other things. Decisions about technical design made by engineers, scientists and managers as well as decisions by politicians about funding and regulation shape our technological landscape. The Internet is a good example – it began as a project of the US government but decisions about its design came from engineers. The fact that the Internet allows for open communication, as well as the fact that it is possible for marketers to collect data about users, are both the result of design decisions, whether conscious or unconscious. The choices made by engineers and governments matter.

In the academic world, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, lawyers and others have written extensively on the relationship between technology and society. This blog aims to connect those thinking and writing about technology with those who design it and those who use it.

Contributors to the blog will be professionals and academics from a range of relevant fields, including engineering, law, science, medicine, development, social sciences and the arts, who will be invited to stimulate discussion on the social impacts of technology as observed through the lenses of their own fields. We encourage you to be an active participant in the conversation, using the comments section beneath each featured contribution. How does the subject matter impact your own field? What are the key questions, problems and solutions as viewed through the prism of your experience or practice? Perhaps you agree with the contributor in question, or perhaps you vehemently disagree. Either way, you are encouraged to engage in the debate.

Who are we? Lyria, an academic in the law faculty at UNSW, is interested in the relationship between technology and law, and how changes in each influence the other. Sarah, an intellectual property lawyer, is interested in how protection of intellectual capital and provision of access to technology impact social mobility and human development. This blog was born out of our mutual realisation that, as lawyers interested in the social implications of technology, we have few opportunities to share ideas with the engineers, scientists, medical practitioners, historians, philosophers and many other breeds of professionals and academics who daily engage in consideration of the same. We aim to connect thinkers and writers from all relevant fields, as well as the broader community, and to provide meaningful opportunities for knowledge sharing, collaboration and debate between them.

If you are interested in making a featured contribution, let us know at If you want to receive the blog in your inbox, subscribe by entering your email address in the box to the right (we will not use your details for any other purpose). If you have a question, comment or counter-argument to one of the contributions on the site, leave your thoughts in the comments section provided beneath the post.

We trust that this blog will entertain you, inspire you and, most of all, make you think.

Welcome to The Social Interface.