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ThinkCycle: Solving World Problems With A Cluster of Brains 161

eaglemoon writes: "ThinkCycle is an MIT Media Lab project to apply SETI@Home principles to design problems for underserved communities. Only, intead of donating spare cpu cycles, you donate spare 'think cycles.' Their aim is to build a community of designers, inventors and innovators that want to collaborate on developing novel solutions to some what intractable problems like clean water access , cholera treatment and appropriate shelters. Their aim is to encourage an "open source" ethos for tough design and technology challenges."
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ThinkCycle: Solving World Problems With A Cluster of Brains

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  • Ok..hmm. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by k98sven ( 324383 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @03:02PM (#3531990) Journal
    So this is a wonderful idea..
    I somehow do not see this working. Of course I'd be happy to be proved wrong, but how do they plan
    on breaking these big, complex, problems up into manageble pieces?

    How can they make all these peoples ideas work together without it all turning into a watered-
    down compromise-type idea without any edge?

    I, for one will be interested in seeing the
    results of this experiment..
  • Sounds like... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by anzha ( 138288 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @03:04PM (#3532012) Homepage Journal
    an overgrown newsgroup. Or a benevolent (now that's mind boggling) Slashdot.

    The primary problem with anything like this is going to be the fact that just like in Usenet, people - valuable, vital people - will move on due to lost interest, changes in their lives, and the fact that anything like this started over the net tends to die off pretty quickly.

    There are exceptions notably some software projects (What I can't imagine ;)), but more often than not ideas get thrown around online pretty quick and easily...and then nothing comes of them.
  • Excellent idea. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vkg ( 158234 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @03:10PM (#3532060) Homepage
    A lot of problems in third world development and disaster relief are not cash-limited, they're brain limited: we really do not know the best ways of treating epidemics in places without any decent high tech infrastructure, for example. Innovative ideas and approaches help: I've seen structures at Burning Man which were a lot better for their purpose than yer average disaster relief tent.

    I think opening the design process up to the widest possible collaboration and really encouraging people to follow through could make a difference: kinda like the Simputer [] project may: a diversity of minds, of approaches, may be the best way to help the poor and the starving.

    We can't wait for government to feed the people, you know? Too big, too slow. It's up to us. And it always has been - this is just one more way to help.
  • by Visigothe ( 3176 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @03:12PM (#3532071) Homepage
    Some of the problems in handling this approach is that unlike the SETI, etc. way of doing things, where a client goes out, grabs a chunk of data to be worked on, then sends the resultant data back to the server, each of these social/governance problems *aren't* a mathmatical formula. You can't just apply the same formulae to every problem. There is no "right" way to do it.

    Computers are also good at multitasking, whereas humans [aside from life-functions] have for the most part, a single tasking thought processes. It also takes people a non-trivial amount of time to context switch [see various /. postings on "getting in the zone"]. This means that while people may not be thinking about work during their lunch hour, they will have a difficult time getting back to thinking about work when they are done [or getting into the mindset of whatever problem needs to be solved]

    Human filter. Again, unlike the SETI idea, a human needs to filter all the resultant data, as by definition, new ways of solving problems don't fit into a previously known idea. say you do get several thousand people working on this project, the resultant data will be huge, *and* every human filter will filter the information in their own way, there is no "control".

    That being said, new ideas come from all around us. Who knows what this experiment can yield.

  • The trick is ... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by doug_wyatt ( 532721 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @03:21PM (#3532115)
    ...going to be finding out who is good at doing what, and breaking up hard problems into components that can be shipped to the people that are good at working on them. It doesn't seem like technology is the real problem here. More human and project management skills.

    Given that the devil in most large systems is in the number of inter-dependencies, not the complexity of any one given component, not having everyone involved relatively close in meatspace is going to make re-constituting a total solution based on the individual component solutions quite difficult indeed.

    But atleast this project is has more societal value than some of the other a virtual dog that you can pet.
    </mandatory-lcs-grad-rip-on-the-media-lab >

  • by bluGill ( 862 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @03:22PM (#3532123)

    Remember innovation is 99% persperation, and 1% insperation. Looks like they are focusing on the 1%, and assuming that the rest will take care of itself.

    I don't have all the answers, but I do know that these third world areas are in desperate need of people to do some work. Someone to come in and create a stable goverment (that will not starve opponents). Teachers to show them how to think. There is a total glut in the food market. (The US could easially supply all the world's nutrirtion needs if people would be willing to live food that doesn't taste good)

    AIDS is a large problem in Africa. We don't have a cure, but we know how to prevent the spread. However most goverments in Africa are doing little to prevent the spread. (In fact some are actively doing things to cause more cases - at least in groups they don't like) We could use a cure, but until there is a cure, we don't need more non-biologists thinking about AIDS (where they are unlikely to make progress), but we could use those same people in Africa teaching people how to prevent aids. Of course if you actually go to Africa you will soon discover that other problems need to be solved before the AIDS problem can be solved.

    We don't need more thinkers, we need more doers. That is much harder. I can go home tonight and think about a methane digester that can be used in a mud hit. I can't go to a village and build them after work tonight.

  • by g4dget ( 579145 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @03:41PM (#3532230)
    Distributed human processing is hardly new--it's the way science and engineering work. Trouble is: getting a bunch of human beings to solve ill-defined problems is just not the same as having a bunch of computers do a well-specified and verifiable task over and over again.

    Let's say someone has a brilliant idea for waste water treatment. How is ThinkCycle going to test that that idea works? It can't just run a computation or ask a bunch of random people to verify the idea. You need to build a pilot and try it out. Well, the mechanisms for evaluating what ideas work and what ideas don't already exist, and they are already distributed: publications, peer review, libraries, conferences, symposia, citation statistics, recommendations, talks, etc. The mechanisms by which you do cooperative problem solving already exist, and they have existed for hundreds of years. They are the mechanism by which we collaborate in science, technology, engineering, and the economy. And there has been very active research in supporting them with computers, through groupware, electronic communications, and many other means.

    As for the site itself, it looks to me like a fairly regular groupware site. It's nice that someone set up a groupware site to discuss these topics. I find it somehwat ironic, though, that a site which writes "Open Source Design" on its banner has so many DOC and PPT files.

  • IT WILL NEVER WORK (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 16, 2002 @03:49PM (#3532269)
    Too many visionaries and too little "workers" will cause internal squabbling and infighting.

    You need one visionary with a veritable dictatorship over an idea, and bunch of hard workers that do as they're told. This is how Linux is successful.

    If you start assembling all the smartest people to try to agree on one thing, they will come up with so many great ideas and they will all think they are right, and it will just stymie the entire effort.

    Instead of sitting around thinking of ideas, go get off your ass and DO SOMETHING. An attempted but failed idea is much more important than a whole bunch of great ideas that never get implemented.
  • Re:Ok..hmm. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by caesar-auf-nihil ( 513828 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @04:09PM (#3532370)
    Interestingly, these ideas are already being tackled. You can get an idea of how the workload is being broken up by reading an article on Low Tech Improving the 3rd World (Wired, April 2002, pages 108-115)

    The way it would work is that you figure out what all resources a project needs, then you break it down into appropriate parts. If you read the article you'll see what I mean. One example is a simple water pump - and they broke up the workload (some of it donated on other people's off time) by dividing it into materials, engineering, and distribution. Each member handled their own part until it was done.

    For this proposed project, you'll probably sign up by listing your areas of expertise (like a resume), and then when a project is proposed, you search through the skill sets until you find what you need, and then you assign that particular person to "Think" on that part of the problem and then report in when they're done. Its not really that different than working in a team. Now your team may truly be distributed among the world.

    At least, that's how I think it could be done.
  • by Altus ( 1034 ) on Thursday May 16, 2002 @04:53PM (#3532614) Homepage
    It is rare that the person best suited to design a system is the same person that is best suited to implement it.

    sure, this wont solve problems, but if it provides an edge to the volunteers in the Peace Corps then I realy dont see how it can be that bad of a thing...

"For a male and female to live continuously together is... biologically speaking, an extremely unnatural condition." -- Robert Briffault