The Online Game That Solved a Longstanding Scientific Puzzle

What's to come?
Feb. 27 2012 1:11 PM

The Crowdsourcing of Talent

Scientists are using video games to make major breakthroughs. Are they revolutionizing how we manage labor at the same time?

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Foldit, eteRNA, and their ilk may well revolutionize how we treat disease. But they’re holding out another promise as well: a realization that conventional management practice is often dead wrong about who is best suited for a task. The best way to match talent to task, at least in the world of nanobiotechnology, isn’t to assign the fanciest degrees to the toughest jobs, but rather to observe the behavior of thousands of people and identify those who show the greatest aptitude for the cognitive skills that task requires.

“You’d think a Ph.D. in biochemistry would be very good at designing protein molecules,” says Zoran Popović, the University of Washington game designer behind Foldit. Not so. “Biochemists are good at other things. But Foldit requires a narrow, deeper expertise.”

Or as it turns out, more than one. Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack. Others—often “grandmothers without a high school education,” says Popovic—exercise a particular social skill. “They’re good at getting people unstuck. They get them to approach the problem differently.” What big pharmaceutical company would have anticipated the need to hire uneducated grandmothers? (I know a few, if Eli Lilly HR is thinking of rejiggering its recruitment strategy.)

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In a January speech, Treuille noted that he and his colleagues at eteRNA were able to “filter through hundreds of thousands of people who are experts at very esoteric tasks.” They are able, in other words, to match talent to task with exceptional efficiency. Not based on someone’s CV, and not based on the magic of “self-selection,” but rather through the thousands of data points generated by the gameplay.

The success of Foldit and Treuille’s eteRNA, then, depends on a far more sophisticated use of crowdsourcing than anyone was envisioning as recently as 2008, when I published my book on the subject. “In the future,” Treuille said in his speech, “I can imagine as grand challenges emerge we can come up with games and puzzles that essentially exploit the skills required and find people who are experts at these kinds of problems and the person who owns this network owns something very valuable.”

Popovich and his UW colleagues are at work on a new game in which people design motors that work at the molecular level. “We’re using nature’s tools to create designs that didn’t exist in nature for purposes of effectively fighting new diseases.” Currently, he says, there are 50 people, in the world, qualified to do this work. “I can increase that by two orders of magnitude,” Popovich says. “I can get to 5,000 people really easily.”

Jeff Howe is an assistant professor at Northeastern University and author of the book Crowdsourcing. He runs the Twitter book club #1book140 for TheAtlantic.com.