How to Teach a Computer

By Cheryl Mahoney

ComputerSometimes I wish that my computer could be just a little bit smarter.  You know, when a search engine returns something completely random, like a picture of a llama after I put in a celebrity’s name (that really happened to me once!)  I can’t explain why that sort of thing happens, but apparently computers have a lot they still need to learn.  We don’t want them to be TOO smart of course–think of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey–but if you’re willing to take that chance and help computers learn more about solving problems, now there’s a way you can do that.

It’s been a while since I wrote a post about fun games that also do good.  So I went hunting around on Help From Home to see what I could find to share with you.  What I found was GWAP–Games With a Purpose.  And the purpose is to help train computers to be better at solving problems–and that’s better for everyone.  Well, everyone but Dave, when Hal mutinies against him, but better for everyone else.

So what kinds of games train computers?  Well, my favorite was the ESP Game.  You and a partner–some stranger out in cyberspace is provided, you don’t have to have one on hand–are both shown the same image.  You each type in words to describe it.  For example, for one image you might type “beach” and “ocean” and “waves” and “sand”…and when you and your partner have each guessed the same word, the game tells you that you’ve matched, and you move on to the next picture.  There’s a time limit to how long you have, and you get points for correct matches–who doesn’t love stacking up points?  And the point of it all is to make computers better at recognizing images for search purposes.  So hopefully no more llamas when I’m looking for people.

You can also choose between photos to select which is more appealing, try to help a partner guess what word you have in front of you (sort of a typing version of Catch Phrase, I think), describe a tune…check out the site and see what game looks fun to you!  And that’s the best part, of course: the games really are fun.  You have a good time, and you’re teaching computers too.  So computers get smarter, and they’re better at solving problems, and not only do I get better results on my searches, things go better for people doing more important things too–you know, scientists, researchers, people like that.  That means everyone wins.  Well, until you’re in a little escape pod trying to get back into your mother ship, and you need Hal to open the door, but he tells you he’s afraid he can’t do that, Dave…but I think very few of us are likely to be in that position.  So it’s probably worth the risk. 🙂


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