jonathan zittrain

Freedom of the Press and Wikileaks

The main questions addressed by this Aspen Ideas Festival panel yesterday was: Is Wikileaks legitimate journalism, and is it good or bad journalism?  The question of legitimacy was largely by-passed in favor of the good-bad issue, although the panel did circle back to discuss whether or not prosecution of Wikileaks (and any newspapers publishing leaks) was appropriate.  The panel consisted of James Fallows, Lawrence Lessig, Jeffrey Rosen, and Jonathan Zittrain.

There was some agreement about Assange’s recklessness in failing to distinguish between whistle-blowing and raw document dumps, and also with Rosen’s view that there is really no principled way to prosecute Wikileaks or the newspapers under the Espionage Act.

On the positive side, Fallows pointed out that Wikileaks does combat the general tendency in governments to suppose that people are better off not knowing what is really going on.  Yet the ‘nihilist’ position that ‘all should be open’ has obvious problems. (more…)

Minds For Sale: The Dark Side of Crowdsourcing

Jonathan Zittrain explored the light and dark sides of innovation with equal aplomb at the Belly Up in Aspen on Monday night. His unique position as a professor of both law and computer science at Harvard was much in evidence as he took us through the intricacies of crowdsourcing and the labyrinth of human motivation. The talk was a tour de force that covered many positive developments, but also uncovered some unsettling possibilities.

At the top of the innovation pyramid are big ticket challenges, such as the X Prizes, which offer large sums of money for the solution to really hard problems, such as sending a robot to the moon. At the bottom are microtasks for which people are paid pennies for exercising simple human skills, such as labeling images or reading handwriting. These are all seemingly harmless with an employment upside for many workers but, as with the Internet itself, crowdsourcing technology enables bad actors as well as good.

The downside ranges from simple scams to the abolition of privacy. Simple scams include paying Mechanical Turks to ‘like’ products they’ve never owned and give them favorable reviews. The more serious stuff involves encouraging citizens to monitor surveillance cameras, record events of interest to intelligence agencies or identify political demonstrators. The scope creep from neighborliness to patriotism to voyeurism to spying for a fee takes us progressively along a very uncomfortable spectrum of human behaviors and outcomes.

(In a fascinating aside, Zittrain noted that it should be possible to identify a single Iranian demonstrator from a photograph by crowdsourcing the comparison of the photograph with the ID cards of 72 million Iranians four photos at a time. He estimated that the total cost would be about $14,000 using Mechanical Turks, and that American schoolchildren could be given this task as a game, which they might even play for free.)

In spite of the dark side, this was a very amusing talk in which we were all invited to marvel at the ways in which folks will spend their time on the Internet. Whether tending virtual farms or playing games for worthless points, it’s clear that many people have hours to kill each day that can be harnessed for good or ill. There were several after-talk queries about how to encourage the upside and regulate the downside, some of which the speaker wisely side-stepped. One suspects that easy answers are nowhere to be found, but at least we can now ask the right questions.

Peter Jackson is chief scientist and vice president of Thomson Reuters, where he’s been since 1995. He has built a group of 40 research staff with expertise in the areas of document search, text and data mining, and machine learning. Jackson is also responsible for university collaboration with respect to joint research projects. His most recent book, Natural Language Processing for Online Applications, came out in a second edition in 2007. From 1992 to 1995, Jackson taught post-graduate classes in artificial intelligence and parallel computing at Clarkson University in New York and was a visiting professor at Singapore Polytechnic. In 1988, he moved to the US and became a principal scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratories. Before coming to the US, he taught in the Department of Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh University from 1983 to 1988 and wrote the textbook Introduction to Expert Systems.

Exploring the Societal Impacts of Crowdsourcing and Human Computing

In an evening session at the Aspen Ideas Festival titled “Minds for Sale,” Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, explored some provocative questions: What does human computing look like? How can you harness the good will of strangers at a distance? And, what are the societal implications of this trend?

The idea of “human computing” relies on aligning tasks and skills with participation and crowdsourcing.  (One example: Amazon Mechanical Turk.) It’s all about connecting the “seekers” with the “solvers” and recognition and reward. Everything from editing to tagging to other tasks can be accomplished through crowd sourcing and a system of micro-payments of pennies per transaction. But enough of micro-payments! How do you get people to work for FREE? The simple answer: Turn the tasks into games. Examples: Chore Wars and ESP games. People love points!

If you can take the work of individuals who are performing these tasks and create a platform to make what they’re doing all the same — to gather the sum total of their actions, you get to the heart of human computing, says Zittrain. But what are the societal implications of trend? What are the dangers and risks? (more…)