Harnessing the power of volunteer citizen scientists and advanced 3D modelling, researchers can expect results in years, not decades. Source: Pietro Michelucci
Harnessing the power of volunteer citizen scientists and advanced 3D modelling, researchers can expect results in years, not decades. Source: Pietro Michelucci

The human brain has evolved over millions of years to become the best tool of visual perception and interpreter creative abstraction there is, though it still requires rest and skilled perception to process effectively. In contrast, modern computers can be relied on to process huge amounts of data but lack the intelligence to truly “understand” big picture concepts. (And while some computers are almost capable of reaching the processing speed of a human brain, they require millions of times more energy than the standard 20-Watt biological model.) By integrating human cognitive sophistication and tireless computational networking scientists are creating a new kind of supercomputer.

“We’re trying to build a distributed brain in which every neuron is a person or computer,” says Pietro Michelucci, Ph.D., director of Human Computation Institute (HCI), an organization collaborating with Cornell University on Alzheimer’s disease research.

An article in Science, “The power of crowds,” Dr. Michelucci’s team presents a system that looks beyond straightforward tech to take on complex problems in hopes of succeeding where traditional methods have failed. Many of these “wicked problems” are dynamic systems that remain mysterious and unpredictable—constantly changing events like weather patterns, political conflict, and pandemics—the understanding of which is beyond the capabilities of man or machine alone.

The human computation supercomputer uses machines to break down big picture data into pieces called microtasks, then reassembles those parts while human computation drives results—and large numbers of microtasking citizen scientists working together drives them fast. The flexible, real-time environment processes data for integration, improvement, and reflow at exponentially faster rates than traditional methods, with humans and machines continually augmenting each other’s work.

One of these human computing experiments, Stardust@HOME, distributed over a million slides to volunteers in order to identify particles of comet dust embedded in aerogel samples. That same system is being applied to identify stalled blood vessels in the EyeWire program, wherein 165,000 volunteers are working to build the world’s most complete human retinal neuron map.

The HCI collaboration with Cornell will focus on Alzheimer's research. Their site, WeCureAlz.com, will host a simple game wherein participants can analyze research data to help construct an accurate 3D model of brain blood flow in normal and Alzheimer's mice, which will then be compared under different experimental conditions. The results gathered will be curated and analyzed by both aforementioned platforms in the hope of discovering new treatment approaches. Preliminary findings are promising.

When asked about the kind of volunteer time commitment required to drive the study, the answer was as little as “a few minutes of gaming while standing in line at the bank or five minutes in the evening a few times a week.”

Says Dr. Michelucci, “When I contacted the respective project leaders to see if their systems could be adapted and combined to help accelerate the Alzheimer's research, they were quick to sign on to help make it happen.  This is the kind of project you just can't turn away from—all the pieces just fell into place.”

There are some potential problems, like recruitment and human unpredictability, but that’s all part of the learning process.  “By enabling members of the general public to play some simple online game, we expect to reduce the time to treatment discovery from decades to just a few years,” Dr. Michelucci continues. “This gives an opportunity for anyone, including the tech-savvy generation of caregivers and early stage AD patients, to take the matter into their own hands. The potential impact on human lives is unfathomable.”

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