I had actually heard about the HIV enzyme discovery before this assignment came up, and I’m glad that it’s getting the attention it deserves. Not only was it a great step forward in a medical sense, but it was also a great step forward in terms of methodology. At it’s core, this is what the RealScience article has in common with the Games With a Purpose (GWAP) – both use citizen participation to essentially increase the amount of “processing power” available.
Tagging images and folding proteins are similar problems in that they are problems of scale rather than problems of absolute difficulty. The people involved don’t need to be experts, they just need to have the ability to think and reason. With enough people involved, these sorts of problems can be solved quickly. That’s the real key – as we’ve discussed in class, running time is just as important as making an algorithm that actually gives the correct result. For algorithms, running time is limited by processing power. Citizen participation basically allows scientists to vastly increase the “human processing power” available for their projects, and as in the case of GWAP, it makes some things feasible that wouldn’t normally be without the extra minds.
This method can be applied to pretty much any problem which is an issue of scale (trying out millions of combinations or tagging millions of images) rather than of difficulty. In essence, you’re trying to recreate Shakespeare’s works by banging on typewriters (something anyone could do) rather than by trying to have one Shakespeare expert recite all of his works perfectly from memory (something that would be extremely difficult if not impossible). This is an especially appropriate example, given that in the past couple of months a blogger managed to create a program that recreated Shakespeare’s works by randomly generating text.
Anyhow, this is already being applied to other areas as we speak, and it has been even before these particular applications. In some sense, projects like Wikipedia use this methodology already. It and other similar projects, such as OpenStreetMap, use citizen participation to accumulate more knowledge than one single expert could conceivably hold. Another example is Safecast, in which citizens collect data on radiation levels in areas near the Fukushima reactor in Japan. These sorts of projects wouldn’t be possible without citizen participation.