Gamification – WTF or FTW?

9 12 2011

You may recently have seen this article or the many articles like it, on how gamers solved a puzzle regarding the shape of an AIDS-related enzyme (above) that had stumped scientists for years. The enzyme is believed to be part of the transmission process of the AIDS virus (or a similar animal virus) – knowing the shape of the enzyme means scientists can work on how to block it, hence this may be an important part of the puzzle for finding an AIDS cure or vaccine.

It took the gamers less than ten days to solve the puzzle.

So how did this happen? The scientists knew what made up the protein, but they didn’t know how the pieces fitted together and what shape they formed, an important factor in the functioning of proteins. The scientists, we can assume, were equally motivated to solve the problem, highly educated in the ways of atoms and molecules. The scientists also had computers that could turn the puzzle over and over – and even the computers couldn’t solve the problem. How did gamers do what scientists and computers couldn’t?

The answer is basic human nature. What the scientists did was make the puzzle into a game. They knew it had to be fun. They attached a points-based reward system. They set up the game so that users could collaborate or build on each others’ work. And then they set it free!

The gamers, motivated by the challenge, the fun and the reward system, worked together and competed against one another. And of course, the human brain is better at solving spatial problems than computers.

So gaming – stereotypically seen as non-productive and somewhat addictive technology – turns out to have application in the “real” world. And of course a multi-syllabic word has been invented to describe this turning of boring or non-entertaining problems into games: gamification.

Gamification is increasingly finding more and more application in the real world. Wikipedia suggests the following list of uses, some productive, some less so:

– Employee training programs
– Education (repetition is good for learning, but currently many educational games are BORING!)
– Project management
– Financial services websites
– Healthcare and wellness

– scientific problems
– engineering problems

– loyalty programs
– online shopping experiences

Membership and recruiting
– attracting new memberships
– religious
– cult or terror organisations
– I believe the US Armed Forces already use games as a recruiting tool

Gamification has many potential uses, through harnessing our innate natures to seek entertainment and continue behaviours that result in reward. The only proviso is that the program / puzzle / game needs to be set up properly to achieve the aim. If the scientists hadn’t already known the molecules that made up the enzyme, and programmed in the ways that the molecules interacted with each other, into the program, the gamers would not have been able to come up with the meaningful result.

So scientists of the world can breathe a sigh of relief. Gamers are not taking over your jobs, they are just the latest tool in your tool belt. Your knowledge is still needed to ask the questions.

And without the right questions, you can’t get the right answer.

Things I have learned from Big Bang Theory

5 11 2011

Big Bang Theory is a huge hit in our house. It is such a new idea, so different from other programs and involves intelligent people getting on with their lives, not people being stupid for the sake of it (which seems to be a recurring theme in so many sitcoms). They value higher education (great for my children to see) and the university setting actually includes some reference to work, research and learning, not just a place to pick up. Not everyone looks like a teenage anorexic Barbie or Ken doll. And maybe, just maybe, I am learning something. Admittedly, not life-changing lessons for life, but interesting things none-the-less.

I should add a disclaimer here. I am not a scientist and this is not a science blog. There are plenty of science blogs out there that are blogging on Big Bang Theory, so if you are looking for one of those, please glance over my posting and then move on!

So here goes:

1. String theory. Now I am going to start by making excuses: I finished both high-school and university before the mid-90s when this theory was first developed. So this was certainly not part of high-school physics classes. And since then my field has been mostly biological science – as Sheldon would have it, applied science, not pure theoretical science. So when I first heard of string theory on Big Bang, a small part of me thought maybe it was something the program writers had made up, Just briefly. There – a true confession. Turns out it is real.

2. The Theremin. This is the instrument that Sheldon practices in order to distract the others from developing an app that will recognise equations. While the sound is vaguely familiar from various sci-fi movie theme music, I have to confess it sounded a lot like someone playing the Saw.

3. The Square-cube law. This states “When an object undergoes a proportional increase in size, its new volume is proportional to the cube of the multiplier and its new surface area is proportional to the square of the multiplier.” (Source – Wikipedia). In practical application, Sheldon uses this to explain to Raj and Howard why giant ants could not exist – as they became larger their increase in volume would render their physical structure unviable. Quite why Howard, an engineer, would require Sheldon to explain this to him is unclear.

4. Toast. Apparently the term “toast” referring to the clinking of glasses together and usually a few words such as “cheers” or “chin-chin” came from the Ancient Romans who used to dip toast into their spiced wine.

5. The importance of a decent business model. When Penny decides to make her fortune making Penny Blossoms and selling them online, she bases her pricing on having made one. When Howard makes her a fabulous website that also offers a rush-order option for ordering 1000 Penny Blossoms, they work night and day to get them ready and then work out that the profit margin is miniscule.

6. The spherical cow joke. The spherical cow joke is this: Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer “I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.” (again, thanks to Wikipedia). The importance of the spherical cow joke is its commentary on the application of idealised scientific principles to real life.

7. Some excellent use of Progam Logic methodology. OK, not a learning, but I love the way they use program logic to map out relationships – particularly Sheldon’s attempt to map a friendship in order to get access to lab resources in “The Friendship Algorithm”. The logic loop and Sheldon’s strict adherence to it is particularly amusing.

8. Skinner’s principles of positive reinforcement can be employed in real life. Yes, yes, we all know that positive reinforcement can work – that’s why we tell the dog he is a “good boy” for coming when he is called. But Sheldon’s use of chocolates as reinforcement to get Penny to adhere to his rules was marvellous and devious at the same time and was a fabulous example of the principle.

9. Bose-Einstein condensate. Refers to the slowing of atoms in a dilute gas by the use of cooling apparatus to cool it to near absolute zero. This produces a a singular quantum state which is the Bose-Einstein condensate. I am sure I will use this knowledge eventually in my life.

10. Schrodinger’s Cat can be used to postulate the outcome of a date. I already knew about Schrodinger’s Cat, but have to admit this novel application had not occurred to me.

This is just a few things I can think of from recent episodes – no doubt there are more I have missed or haven’t yet seen. What else have you learned from Big Bang Theory?

Seeing and believing

7 08 2011

We’ve all heard the old saying “seeing is believing”, referring to wanting to see the evidence in order to believe in something. Its corollary “you have to believe it to see it” is popular in positive thinking circles and the basis of visualisation as a technique, the idea being if you can trick your brain into believing in a possibility, the brain will make it come true.

But there is a third version of this. Sometimes, you only see the things you believe in. This is confirmation bias.

A simple example of these three: The first would be a parent saying that they don’t believe their child has good marks until the report card comes home. The second would be the child needing to believe it is possible to get good marks in order to actually achieve it. The third would be the teacher marking students according to what they expect they will get – Mary always gets high marks so her essay is read more thoroughly and favourably.

Wikipedia lists a number of biases, many of which have a similar basis to confirmation bias – we only believe, hear, see, test, understand, remember, the information that confirms our own opinion or hypotheses, rather than starting with a level playing field and examining the evidence impartially and wholly.

In general, we have a high regard for our own opinions and tend to believe that our opinion has been formed using all the available evidence and logical thought. If only we were such rational beings! My mother, being a Libra, says that her opinions are balanced, she has considered all sides of the argument. If you disagree with her then you are not thinking about the problem correctly. We agree to differ on this point.

The danger is of course that these biases are generally invisible to us as we make decisions that affect ourselves, our work and others. To quote Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620):

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.. . . And such is the way of all superstitions, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, although this happened much oftener, neglect and pass them by.

So, amusingly, we use this to confirm our beliefs in astrology (my mother is a Libra, therefore she behaves in this way….ignoring examples where she behaves otherwise.) More dangerously, we also confirm our own beliefs when the stakes are higher. Do we want scientists testing medicines that they already believe will work? Of course not, we want them to look at all the evidence and identify the positives and negatives. Do we want our teachers, bosses,co-workers seeking to confirm their established opinions? No, we want to be judged on unbased evidence – and all of the evidence.

Mixed senses

1 08 2011

When I think of the letter ‘C’ I think of the number 6. A certain texture will remind me of the smell of biscuit icing from my childhood (they were Nursery Rhyme biscuits – similar to the Tick Tock biscuits of today). And a certain smell (which I can’t quite identify) reminds me of the texture of a plasticky kind of play-dough that I can’t quite place.

In terms of synaesthesia, these are all fairly mild and amuse rather than confuse. I’m not sure of the first example even qualifies! It would seem from the literature that synaesthesia is a condition – if it can be called such – that does little harm. I like to think of it as a little window into creativity, like déjà-vu, a little unsolvable puzzle about how my brain works – or mis-works, if such a word exists!

So what is it? Essentially, crossed wires between the senses. Stimuli in one sense (visual, taste, hearing etc) stimulates another sense. A musical note might evoke a taste. Letters might have specific colours or textures. Numbers might have positions or directions. A colour might evoke a sound. Synaesthesia is said to affect approximately 1 in every 2000 people, so essentially it is very common.

Synaethesic connections are automatic and consistent, not transitory. They often evoke mild emotion – for me it is a mild elation, like recalling a happy memory, albeit one that I can’t quite place.

Synaethesia may be a language and a linkage we can’t understand, but is not meaningless. An interesting explanation from a synaesthete who sees letters as having colours notes that when seeing text that he cannot read – say Chinese script – he does not have the same links. Also, when he understands words, they sometimes change colour. If you are interested in this subject, it is worth reading.

Perhaps it originates when as babies and small children we are first experiencing the world. Perhaps, at the time when our brain is full of connections and some are being hard-wired and some are being eliminated – wires cross and the wrong things are linked up.

Either way, it is an interesting puzzle, and intriguing look into the brains we understand so little of, and a reminder that we can’t assume that the people around us experience the world the same way we experience it.

Other interesting web resources on this subject:
Mindhacks (The taste of musical notes)
Wikipedia has a very good explanation of different types of synaethesia
MIT – also has a listing of journal articles
and a rather lovely poem about syneasthesis by Annette Snyckers