News From the Future
I N JULY OF 2006, CARNEGIE MELLON
professor Luis von Ahn gave a tech talk at
Google entitled, “Games with a Purpose.” In it,
he described his ESP Game, which matches up two
people selected at random over the internet and
asks them to guess the same label for photos that
are shown simultaneously to each of them.
Participants have a good time — players report
a great feeling of satisfaction as they get “in sync”
and make similar guesses. People have played for
15 hours at a stretch, and many regularly play as
much as 20 hours a week.
The outcome: 75,000 players have provided 15
million labels for images. And labels generated by
agreement between two independent players are By Tim O’Reilly
remarkably accurate and useful. Von Ahn estimates
that if the game were played by 5,000 simultaneous paragraph, he also mentioned Homo faber, man the
players — a number common on popular gaming maker, as another alternative to the familiar Homo
sites — it would take about two months to label all sapiens, man the thinker.)
the images in Google Images. In September, Google What makers understand is that play is as impor-launched the Google Image Labeler, putting custom- tant as work. It’s not just how we pass the time, it’s
ers to work in much the way von Ahn has proposed. how we learn and explore.
This story is interesting, not only as an illustration As I mentioned in my last column, back in August,
of one of the themes I’ve written about previously — in Wired News John Seely Brown told the story of
that our software is becoming bionic, fusing human how status as a World of Warcraft guild master
and machine intelligence rather than achieving artifi- helped Stephen Gillet win a senior engineering
cial intelligence — but also because it highlights the management position at Yahoo.
importance of play as an outlet for human energy. “The process of becoming an effective World of
In his talk, von Ahn pointed out that in 2003, Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion
about 9 billion human-hours were spent playing soli- course in leadership. ... To run a large one, a guild
taire. By contrast, only 7 million human-hours ( 6. 8 master must be adept at many skills: attracting,
hours of solitaire) were spent building the Empire evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating
State Building, and only 20 million human-hours on apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group
the Panama Canal. That’s a staggering amount of strategy; and adjudicating disputes. ... Never mind
play, and that’s on only one small game. Von Ahn the virtual surroundings; these conditions provide
waggishly pointed out that harnessing humans to real-world training a manager can apply directly in
play games, especially games that solve computer the workplace.”
problems that AI cannot yet solve, would have been Perhaps even more importantly, he writes: “Unlike
a far more plausible pretext for the AI of the Matrix education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and
to keep humans around. In fact, he’s committed to classroom instruction, what takes place in massively
just that goal, saying: “We’re going to consider all multiplayer online games is what we call accidental
humanity as an extremely advanced and large-scale learning. ... Accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual
distributed processing unit that can solve large- environments are safe platforms for trial and error.
scale problems that computers cannot yet solve.” The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and
I liked von Ahn’s phrase, “games with a purpose,” the lessons learned are immediate.”
but of course, all games have a purpose, not merely We play to learn. What we make when we play
those that put us to work helping out our computers. is ourselves.
Play is so central to human experience that historian Check makezine.com/08/nff for related stories.
Johan Huizinga suggested that our species be called Tim O’Reilly ( tim.oreilly.com) is founder and CEO of O’Reilly
Homo ludens, man the player. (Notably, in the same Media, Inc. See what’s on the O’Reilly Radar at radar.oreilly.com.