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Mycroft: human-powered grid computing

Mycroft: human-powered grid computing

Mycroft is a new system that takes tasks that can only by done by humans, breaks them down into tiny subtasks, and sends them out to users through Web advertising banners. It's like the SETI at Home Project, except the grid of intelligence resides in the unused compute cycles between peoples' ears instead of on their PCs.

The Internet is an effective global work-distribution network, and this is not the first time a company has tried to use it to spread work around. Elance, for example, is an effective tool for outsourcing and offshoring tasks. Amazon's Mechanical Turk (cleverly tagged "artificial artificial intelligence") offers any Web user the opportunity to pick up small tasks and get paid for the work. And human "answer engines" such as those from Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft can be more effective than machine-powered search engines.

Mycroft's biggest difference is the degree to which it breaks down tasks. For instance, it can be used for human-powered OCR, but instead of asking users to spend minutes or hours transcribing pages of text, the Mycroft user will see just a few words at a time (the system will run each task against multiple users to ensure accuracy). The tool can also be used to categorize photos (see also The ESP Game) and to do translations.

Mycroft users are paid not in cash, but in credits that can be applied towards goods and services, such as magazine subscriptions. Or they can work for free--founders Judd Antin and Benjamin Hill point to the Wikipedia as proof that some people will contribute knowledge for nothing more than the fun of it.

The company will charge companies for the work its users perform on their behalf. It will have to buy ad banners to get the tasks out there, but Antin and Hill say the math works--they'll make more from the fees they collect for their users' work than what it will cost them to buy the ad placements. Also, they're sure that Mycroft will be able to get tasks done much more quickly than other outsourcing services.

I can't wait for these ads to surface--it will be nice to see advertising units that can directly benefit the people who see them instead of just trying to sell them stuff.