Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Crowdsourcing

September 2012

By Mike Gould

“…Researchers seek help decoding "encrypted warhead"”

    Headline from recent Ars Technica website Risk Assessment / Security & Hacktivism page

Yup, encryption so potent the experts are calling for any- and everyone with expertise in encoding to help figure out what the target is for a new directed malware attack. Remember the Stuxnet worm that attacked the Iranian nuclear centrifuges, the one that turned out to be a first strike from Operation Olympic Games, (a joint effort from the US Department of Concealed Cyber Warfare and the Israelis)? This is a similar payload from a malware called “Gauss” that was recently discovered lurking in computers in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries.

I’m not going to go into the details of the ongoing computer battle for the chips and blips of the planet’s PCs and Macs; what I found interesting was opening up the investigation to the citizens of the Web. This is called “crowdsourcing”.

Wisdom of the Crowd
Cribbing from Wikipedia, as I often do:

Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. In the classic use of the term, problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—submit solutions.

In other words, somebody has a problem and asks the computer/web users of the world to help out. In the above case, Kaspersky Lab, a Russian-based anti-virus company that was involved in investigating the Stuxnet worm, has hit the wall trying to figure out what is up with Gauss, and has offered nuggets of code to the community as a puzzle that needs solving. A sort of Sudoku for the cyber set.

Distributed Computing
I first heard about this sort of thing a while ago when SETI@Home started up. Most astronomy being done these days involves truly massive data sets, “billions and billions” of bits, as Carl Sagan would have said. To help crunch all this data the geniuses at SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, figured out a way to take advantage of the millions (and millions) of computers on the Net today, most of which were not being used for most of the day.

They way it works is that people who want to find ET (or at least his radio signals as he phones home) can download special software to their computers that enable the SETI folks to upload a bunch of encoded radio signals to one’s computer. When the computer isn’t being used, it crunches through the signals looking for signs of intelligence and sends the results (mostly negative so far, alas) back to SETI HQ. This essentially turns a bunch of ‘puters into one big one, saving time and money for SETI at the expense of a bunch of computer users volunteering their unused computer time for good. (There has got to be a great movie script out there involving the random person who does finally get a “hit”…).

Distributed computing is slightly different from crowdsourcing in that the activities of the crowd are mostly passive; they are just sharing their computers. But hey, a crowd is a crowd and it is all about the growing Internet phenomenon of community building. A related enterprise, setilive.org, is more crowdsourced: it uses humans scanning their computer screens to look for signals in real time. URLs for these are below, for those who want to get involved.

Another distributed computing effort of note is Folding@home. This enables you to help scientists studying Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, or other diseases by loaning computer time to investigate how proteins fold themselves in order to do their business. The 3D aspects of these folded proteins can provide clues as to how some diseases work. You can actually watch your computer manipulate the shapes of these while it works.

Amazon Mechanical Turk
This one is pure crowdsource: the Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) is an Internet marketplace that connects businesses that need massive amounts of people power to perform tasks only humans can do, such as looking at photos or identifying performers on CDs. The original Mechanical Turk was an automaton that played chess in the 18th century. It was later revealed that the Turk concealed a human chess master: a human helping a machine do its task. Hence the AMT is humans helping computers identify things and do things computers can’t do. If you go to the AMT site, you can sign up to make some bucks looking at photos or whatever, or to hire some other members of the crowd to help you out in whatever task is involved.

Crowd funding – Kickstarter<br> Finally, some love for the creatives out there. Kickstarter enables artists, wrtiters, animators, film makers, and the like to raise money for their projects. Given the huge development costs for films, video games, and other artistic endeavors, and given the general poverty of most artists, this is an idea that has taken off big time in recent months. Instead of an artist looking for an angel, a flock of them appear if they are interested, having discovered you online.

The way it works is someone posts an idea for a project, and offers rewards for people who donate money for it. The rewards can be a copy of what is to be made, a limited edition of the work, or some unique experience related to the art. Some video games have raised millions of dollars; some projects don’t raise a dime, but that’s life in the art world. Their website boasts of some 24,000 projects that have been successfully funded, 2,000,00 backers of projects, and $250 million raised.

It takes a crowd to make a community, and that is one resource the ‘Net has in abundance.

Astronomy:
http://setiathome.berkeley.edu
http://www.setilive.org

Protein Folding:
http://folding.stanford.edu/English/HomePage

Amazon Mechanical Turk:
https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome

Kickstarter:
http://www.kickstarter.com

Other Examples:
http://crowdsourcingexamples.pbworks.com/w/page/16668404/FrontPage
http://www.crowdsourcing.org

Mike Gould has issues with crowds, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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