The power of crowds

December 06, 2016 by Pietro Michelucci, Janis L. Dickinson

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Human computation, a term introduced by Luis von Ahn, refers to distributed systems that combine the strengths of humans and computers to accomplish tasks that neither can do alone. The seminal example is reCAPTCHA, a Web widget used by 100 million people a day when they transcribe distorted text into a box to prove they are human. This free cognitive labor provides users with access to Web content and keeps websites safe from spam attacks, while feeding into a massive, crowd-powered transcription engine that has digitized 13 million articles from The New York Times archives. But perhaps the best known example of human computation is Wikipedia. Despite initial concerns about accuracy, it has become the key resource for all kinds of basic information. Information science has begun to build on these early successes, demonstrating the potential to evolve human computation systems that can model and address wicked problems (those that defy traditional problem-solving methods) at the intersection of economic, environmental, and sociopolitical systems.