Science by crowdsourcing
Science Daily reports that chemists at the annual meeting of the Americal Chemical Society will be using a computer game format to try to think up creative ways to find new energy sources. The press release describes it as a “‘collaborative think’ project” which “…leverages the intellectual power of chemists for the greater good.”
The game seems to involve avatars moving around in a virtual future world, with the player thinking up ideas in response to scenarios presented in the game. The ideas are reviewed by moderators and the best ideas will be compiled and released to the public.
This exercise reminded me of FoldIt, which is actually a very cool idea and fun to boot. FoldIt is, simply put, a game about folding proteins. It’s pretty easy to get into and quite addictive, but the really interesting thing about it is that everybody’s play data is recorded and, indirectly, used for scientific purposes. The idea is to try to leverage the “human factor” to improve existing algorithms for predicting how proteins fold. Such algorithms suffer from the common problem that they easily get stuck in “local minima”, energy states that look good compared to the near surroundings but that are worse than other states futher away. FoldIt was developed by protein folding guru David Baker’s research group.
Another kind of scientific crowdsourcing is represented by Innocentive, which is linked to a couple of pharma companies. The concept behind Innocentive is simple: pharmas (or other entities) can post challenges (basically, scientific or technical problems to solve) with an associated amount of prize money, and then anyone who has registered as an “Innocentive Solver” can try to solve the problem and claim the prize. Since the web knows no geographical borders, Innocentive can – in principle – access competent people from the whole world. I should add that the challenges look extremely difficult – but they do occasionally get solved.
Another company, Imaginatik, describes itself as “the leader in innovation, idea management and enterprise crowdsourcing software.” The company claims it has a procedure for obtaining better ideas within an organization by efficiently capturing and sharing ideas generated by employees.
In a recent press release, Imaginatik in collaboration with Pfizer and CambridgeSoft announced a new visual collaboration tool for scientists, ChemBioConnect. Quoting the press release:
ChemBioConnect allows scientists to draw, view, edit, archive and search chemical structures and biological systems in a secure, robust collaboration and idea management environment. The software solution effectively allows for collaborative problem-solving among scientists by combining CambridgeSoft’s chemically intelligent visual toolsets with Imaginatik’s leading-edge innovation and idea management platform, comprised of software, services and a deep understanding of how human networks operate.
Are there other examples of scientific crowdsourcing? It certainly feels like a fruitful arena for future development.