Roger Cohen, The Quest to Belong
Next year’s Thanksgiving grace.
Is Automan a step towards autonomy at work, or slavery? buff.ly/SD4NTY Can AI and crowdsourcing reduce drudgery at work?— Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd) December 7, 2012
From the post at GigaOM Pro:
Imagine a company that ran totally on crowdsourcing, where an impartial automaton posts work assignments (along with fees), and members of the ‘workcrowd’ opt to take on work through some sort of bidding process. Upon completion, the machinery — or another member of the workcrowd — would determine if the work was adequate for its purpose. Presumably, the determination of what tasks need to be done could likewise be crowdsourced. An entire organization that is all crowd, no boss.
Perhaps a bit scifi even for my tastes, but there is certainly something intriguing about adding artificial intelligence to the mix, if only to manage aspects of the coordination of increasingly independent workers. As [Daniel] Barowy said, ”One way to think about it is that it saves the interesting parts, the creative parts, or the fun parts for people. It’s really the best of both worlds. You have the computer doing the grunt work.”
Douglas Rushkoff, interviewed by Samatha Hinds in The New Inquiry, 3
I am happy to announce the start of the140film project. What you see above is the first two lines of a movie that twitter will write one tweet at a time. When it’s all written Derek and I will produce exactly what is on the page… er… internet.
Here’s how it works:
- Read the two current lines of the movie featured at the top of the page.
- Read submissions by other people in the stream of tweets on the page. Vote for the line you like best by retweeting any tweet or write your own and use #the140film. The first tweet to get 25 retweets will become the next line in the film and move to the featured spot at the top of the page.
- Once we reach 140 lines the movie will be written… and then Derek and I will start production.
I’m really excited to see the movie you guys will write! Head on over to the site and start retweeting and writing.
This is cool as hell. I will have watch this movie, built from a distributed screenplay.
Guardian announces ‘open newsdesk’ — paper will publish (not all) of the stories it is working on, and hope to get early guidance from readers. Definitely trying to swim upstream ahead of curation into creation.
The world is too complex to plan business direction from ‘a blank sheet of paper and sheer brilliance’, says Polly LaBarre, so inventing the future is everyone’s job [via the Podio blog, part of the Future Of Work series]
MassMotion puts a large, intelligent, 3-D crowd into a building’s design and finds out where you need bigger doors or more escalators.
Humans react in a seemingly irrational manner during emergency evacuations; sometimes, people even get trampled in the process. But what if architects and developers could predict how large crowds might move through their buildings in the event of an emergency—and then tweak the designs to ensure that everything runs smoothly?
That’s the premise of MassMotion, a crowd simulator that allows users to view hundreds of thousands of simulated 3-D people moving through urban environments (i.e. train stations and airports), all by programming each individual with a distinct personality and agenda.
Crowdsourcing the weather report seems smart to me. Weddar tries to do that on iPhone.
I saw a piece about how crowdsourcing can help small businesses, but the author, Laura Rich, never mentioned the motivations of the crowd: why do they help?
Laura Rich, Tapping the Wisdom Of the Crowd
FROM all appearances, Trek Light Gear is a substantial operation. The company sells many products, like its signature lightweight hammock, backpacks, tarps and apparel. It operates a flagship store in Boulder, Colo., distributes products online and sells at festivals and events all over the country.
But Trek Light has a full-time staff of one: Seth Haber, the founder. “I’m always trying to seem bigger,” he said.
For example, when it comes to product development, branding and market research, he has felt the pinch of being a small operation. So last year, he turned to crowdsourcing for help.
Through a local company called Napkin Labs, Mr. Haber gained access to a large pool of consumers for feedback on how the company was presenting itself and where it should be going. The process began with a brainstorming session with the principals of Napkin Labs, Riley Gibson and Warren Ng.
They filled a white board with diagrams and notes, clarified Mr. Haber’s goals for his business and identified his crucial branding question: Should he focus his efforts on the company’s hammock or expand into related areas, like products for campers?
To get an answer, a series of exploratory questions was posted to the Napkin Labs crowd members, asking them about their camping experiences and what frustrations they might have endured. Additionally, they were asked for feedback on the brand itself.
After a few weeks, Napkin Labs tallied up the responses and delivered the crowd’s verdict: expand the business. “It really confirmed my decision not to pigeonhole the business around the lightweight hammock,” Mr. Haber said.
Napkin Labs later delivered a more detailed report and is now deploying its crowd to work with Mr. Haber on new product ideas. Although compensation varies by project, the crowd is paid based on a point system that evaluates the frequency of participation, quality of ideas and influence on the outcome. Mr. Haber’s project was treated as a test case, but Napkin Labs typically charges $10,000 and up for a project that involves both crowdsourcing and consulting.
I thought Napkin Labs sounded interesting, until I started to turn over some rocks. Obviously, there is a need for confidentiality and consideration for the ownership of a company’s ideas. But reading the terms at Napkin Labs quickly led me to realize that something iffy is going on here. Here’s the terms with my comments in brackets, bolded and italicized.
1. 1. Parties and Description of the Services
Napkinlabs.com, is a web site that lets users such as yourself (“Innovators”) submit ideas, comments or Ideas (collectively “Ideas”) regarding a problem or project (“Project”) that Napkin Labs, Inc., a Delaware corporation, or its affiliates (which are referred to as “Napkin Labs”, “us”, “we” or “the Company”), has posted on the Website (defined below). Often the Website will allow the Napkin Labs community of Innovators (the “Network”) to interact, question, comment, propose problems, suggestions and/or ideas (such interaction, questions, comments, problems, suggestions and/or ideas is collectively referred to as “Ideas”). The Projects will usually be based on topics that a customer (“Customer”) of the Company has requested us to post for submission of Ideas. The Ideas may be commercialized, produced and sold by Napkin Labs, the Customer, or others.
The NapkinLabs.com web site and its associated services (the “Services”) may be found at the domain and its related subdomains found at www.napkinlabs.com (that website and any successor website or other NapkinLabs website, is referred to as the “Website”).
1. 6. License Granted Company for Unpurchased Ideas; Transfer of Title to Company for Purchased Ideas.
Whenever you post an Idea on the Website, you hereby automatically grant to the Company a royalty-free, worldwide, fully paid-up, transferrable, sublicensable, divisible, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive right and license to use, reproduce, modify, arrange, rearrange, display, transmit, market, sell, offer for sale, manufacture, import, prepare derivative works based on, distribute throughout the world (in any medium now known or hereafter created), publicize, and otherwise utilize or exploit in any fashion with your Idea including any and all Intellectual Property Rights (defined below) pertaining thereto.
[So, before anything else, as a crowd contributor, you yield any rights to any ideas you share. So if I were to outline a better way to organize warehouse operations for a client, I have waived any rights to use those ideas elsewhere? Yes, you have, and those ideas are now owned by Napkin Labs, who can assign them to it’s customers, or do whatever it wants with them.]
If the Company only obtains a non-exclusive license from you, you do not owe the Company any money for your own use or exploitation of the Ideas or account for any payments you receive, and similarly the Company does not need to pay over or account to you. This foregoing non-exclusive license is granted even if you do not receive an Innovators Payment Amount. In this Agreement the term “Intellectual Property Rights” means all statutory (whether state, United States Federal, or non-United States Law) and common law intellectual property rights of any kind, related to a work of authorship, recording, idea, discovery, invention, creation formula, algorithm, development or improvement, whether or not reduced to practice and whether or not patentable or protectable under any statute, including, without limitation, any and all trademark, service mark, mask work, copyright, rights of paternity, integrity, disclosure and withdrawal (sometimes referred to as “moral rights”), and patent and industrial rights.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, if you receive an Innovators Payment Amount of over $100 for an Idea, you hereby irrevocably and perpetually assign without further action by you, and agree to deliver such additional assignments or other instruments of transfer as may be reasonably requested by the Company, all of your right, title and interest in and to the Idea (and any related concepts, ideas, improvements and/or modifications thereto) including without limitation, all related Intellectual Property Rights and the right to sue and settle any past, present and future infringement of any such rights. If for any reason such assignment is not fully effective (by law or otherwise) , you hereby grant a license to Company in the Idea under the terms of the above paragraph, except that the license is exclusive. To the extent such Idea or related Intellectual Property Rights cannot be assigned or licensed, by law or otherwise, you hereby waive enforcement of such rights against Company, its successors, assigns and licensees. You further agree that you will not make any claims against the Company or any third party who is assigned or licensed rights in such Idea by the Company, based on any allegations that any activities by the Company or such third party infringe your (or anyone else’s) Intellectual Property Rights in the Idea. You further represent, warrant and covenant that in connection with any such assignment you reserve no (and are unaware of any other party having any) rights whatsoever with respect to such Ideas and related Intellectual Property Rights and the Company will have the right to enforce all Intellectual Property Rights in the Idea against you and all other persons with respect to any subsequent use by you of such Idea. You will not claim that the amount of the Innovators Payment Amount was less than a fair amount or that it was not adequate.
[Ouch. So any idea offered up is owned by Napkin Labs for $100.01, and you have no further claims.]
You will assist the Company in perfecting, maintaining, enforcing and defending its rights in Ideas it obtains from you, including without limitation, signing patent applications, patent assignments, copyright registrations, giving testimony and the like. If the Company requests you to do these things and it will take more than two hours, Company will pay you your “market rate” (but not more than $50.00 per hour) for your reasonably time spent on such activities.
As to purchased Ideas, you hereby irrevocably designate and appoint the Company and its officers and agents, as your agent and attorney-in-fact to act for and on your behalf and instead of you, to execute and file any documents, applications or related findings and to do all other lawfully permitted acts in furtherance of the purposes set forth above in this Agreement, including, without limitation, the perfection of assignment and the prosecution and issuance of patents, patent applications, copyright applications and registrations, trademark applications and registrations, or other rights in connection with such Ideas and improvements thereto with the same legal force and effect as if executed by you.
Company has the right to have the provisions of this Section specifically enforced by either the Company or any third party who is assigned or licensed rights in such Ideas by the Company, and any such third party is intended to be a third party beneficiary of this provision.
You further understand and agree that: (i) you are solely responsible for understanding all copyright, patent, trademark, trade secret and other intellectual property or other laws that may apply to your Idea; (ii) you are solely responsible for, and the Company will have no liability in connection with, the legal consequences of any actions or failures to act on your part while using the Website, including without limitation any legal consequences relating to your or any other person’s Intellectual Property Rights or Proprietary Information; and (iii) you represent and warrant that your Idea does not infringe on any rights of others including Intellectual Property rights, was not misappropriated from or assigned to another person, and (iv) you have the right to grant the licenses provided for herein and transfer the title to the Idea and related Intellectual Property Rights provided for herein.
The assignment by Innovator of title to Ideas and the related Intellectual Property Rights is not contingent on any particular amount (over $100) of Innovator’s Payment Amount being paid. If after the Company delivers notice to you of the amount of your Innovator’s Payment Amount, and the Company does not in fact pay that amount (except for amounts offset for obligations of the Innovator to the Company or because the Innovator has breached a representation or warranty in this Agreement), the transfer of title to the Idea and the related Intellectual Property Rights is void. If an Innovator believes the Company has not made such a payment and believes the transfer of title is void, the Innovator will notify the Company of that fact within 75 days after the Company notifies the Innovator of the amount of the Innovator’s Payment Amount or the Innovator is barred from asserting title did not pass. Further, within 15 days after delivery of that notice the Company may cure any default in making payment by tendering payment to the Innovator.
Well, it’s clear to me that Napkin Labs is in the business of shifting through crowdsourced ideas, looking for great insights that it can license or sell off.
This is the dark side of so-called crowdsourcing. It’s like paying Pacific islanders pennies to dive for pearls which are sold for thousands in the salons of Europe.
This is similar to the ‘crowdsourcing’ that goes on in the design world these days, where designers collectively compete against each other on draft ‘spec work’ and the customer picks a winner to complete the final deliverable. Here the losses are the intense competition around price, and the unbounded nature of the work involved. As a result, a crowd of designers work and time is wasted, while a single designer is picked.
In both cases, iffy ethics are at work, skewing the power in the situation to the buyer and away from the seller. This is the sort of destructive competition that has led to the creation of guilds and unions in the past, but we live in a cut-throat, post-modern civilization, where it’s increasingly everyone for themselves: neofeudalism 2.0.
[reposted from Darwin, July 2003 issue, courtesy of the Wayback Machine]
At last: The socialization of the enterprise leads to intelligence rising to the top.
IN 1999, I WROTE a piece about Abuzz, a then-newly funded start-up that had developed a fascinating expertise management solution. The product was called BeeHive, and was based on insights about emergent behavior in groups that grew out of research into the interactions and behavior of social insects, hence the name. The premise of BeeHive was to enable an online interaction between members of a community so that when someone encountered a difficult problem the system would provide either an answer to the question or a pointer to someone likely to be able to help. Later on, Tacit Knowledge Systems and others (such as Lotus) would also field systems based on these same ideas. Abuzz was acquired by the New York Times while I was researching them, and its technology more or less disappeared from view, although it supposedly powers some online NYT communities.
For example, within a large professional services company a consultant might to looking for assistance with a customer’s request, such as a European telephony regulatory issue. Now this is more or less the heartland of knowledge management, and there have been countless KM solutions that are based on the premise that knowledge can be strip mined from people’s heads, and stored in digital form in a system for later use. But these expertise management solutions take a different tack. They are based on an adaptation, not prediction.
Karma and Whuffie: Self-organizing Swarmocracies
In these systems, answers to hard questions are handled on demand, in (more or less) real time. Expertise management systems build a profile of users’ interests, and ask other users to rate the quality of answers or other assistance each user provides, so that over time a measure of expertise can be associated with each user relative to various categories of questions.
The guy who consistently answers questions about Java to others’ satisfaction quickly becomes — within the system, and the social network that it comes to embody — a Java expert. And in the most advanced of these solutions, with a rise in community-based merit, the experts’ ratings of others are weighted more strongly than non-experts. The basic principle is that these online aggregations of experts are self-organizing and self-monitoring: the system acts as a matchmaker, and mediates by introducing those who have questions with those who have the answers. And the most active and knowledgeable are acknowledged as such, both by getting recognition based on ratings and gaining more weight in ratings of others merit.
The emergence of social order from emergent properties of merit-based social interaction is a potent self-organizing principle, and is likely to form the foundation of all adaptive social tools in the future. This principle has been named many times: at Slashdot it is called “karma.” Corey Doctorow called it “whuffie” (in his science fiction work, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom). I favor the term “swarmth” because it gets at the heart of what is happening — swarm intelligence leading to filtering out the dumb, and intelligence rising to the top.
Other Recent Sightings
Swarm intelligence is showing up in other interesting technologies. CompanyWay has taken the principle of swarmocracy and applied it to the problem of organizational decision making.
Consider, as a working example, the issues surrounding a company’s product planning processes. How does management know that it is evaluating the market data correctly? How to understand client requests for improvements? How much money should be allocated to the various product lines? Who gets to decide which issue, and how do the various issues impact each other?
In the typical company, these product decisions are traditionally handled in a top-down fashion over a determined period of time: senior management allocates funds to various functional groups, product line managers aggregate information from various sources and hand over product requirements to engineering or design groups, and so on. But in a rapidly changing, perhaps even incomprehensible market, how can management be sure that these piecemeal decisions come back together for a winning or even acceptable product? Or said in other ways, how can you be sure that you are right?
CompanyWay’s technology approaches this problem from the bottom up, likewise over some period of time, but less likely a bounded period. A large group, perhaps hundreds of interested parties would be brought into a CompanyWay swarmocracy, and let loose like a bag of ladybugs. For example, all the members of the product process: designers, engineers, packaging experts, marketing, salespeople and even (dare we say it?) customers. Every member of the swarm may start with exactly the same swarmth — the same rating, the same weighting on votes, etc. &3151; but relatively quickly this changes, as individuals begin to post ideas into a shared collaborative space, and others begin to rate the value of the ideas, and then still others rate the value of people’s comments about ideas.
The administrator of the swarm can exercise a kind of jujitsu-like control on the Brownian motion going on, by assigning CompanyWay-managed merit points to specific ideas that have been raised, and assigning a merit award date to the idea. This attracts members of the swarm to spend more time (and thought) on the ideas valued more highly by the administrator. When the merit award date comes, let’s say a few weeks later, the merit is distributed on some defined number of those whose contribution to that idea was rated most highly by the swarm. Members can also acquire “wisdom” (so-called) by selecting a course of action for a particular issue — continue, abandon, fund, for example — that accords with what the administrator ultimately decides to do. As members acquire more swarmth — either through ratings, merit or wisdom — the weight of their votes increases. At a point identified by the administrator, swarm members can accumulate enough swarmth to become a sub-administrator of a sub-swarm devoted to a particular issue or group of issues.
It’s Getting Swarm In Here
Swarm logic takes some getting used to, even as a theoretical case, let alone actually revamping business processes. Jettisoning the top-down, command-and-control structures that most businesses are built on, and accepting a socialized decision making process — even one remotely controlled by the administrator’s distribution of merit points or assigning higher swarmth to specific individuals at the start — takes courage, and a belief in the swarm.
Eric Bonabeau, a researcher in swarm intelligence and founder/CTO of Icosystems, when asked about the apparent reluctance of business management to accept the notion of bottom-up, emergent solutions to thorny problems, said, “Managers would rather live with a problem they can’t solve than with a solution they don’t fully understand or control.”
Top-down decision-making in corporations relies on a belief in accurate prediction: a small number of minds, perhaps only one, assimilating serially a large body of data and producing an single, grand analysis that leads to a large number of people performing their smaller, circumscribed roles. Think of a symphony, written and conducted by a single person, and an orchestra playing exactly how it is told.
Bottom-up decision-making is based on a belief in adaptation: a large number of minds, perhaps thousands of minds, working in parallel, assimilating small bits of information and producing many small analyses, that lead to others being influenced in their analyses, and so on. A fractal decision-making process, where the activities at one scale directly reflect the activities at another.
This is not an orchestra — at least not a traditional one, anyway. (I read about a bottom-up orchestra, whose name escapes me, that operates without a conductor. Its rehearsals are much longer than traditional ones, but its music is nonetheless top-flight and its members are unwilling to leave the swarm to make “factory music,” as one member put it.) This is more like a jazz ensemble, building the music one riff at a time through improvisation.
It’s The Socialized Enterprise
I believe that the basic social wiring in the human mind makes swarming easy, easier than the traditional alternative. I have my own horror stories about stupid decision-making processes, poor product planning and autocratic business governance leading to disaster. Perhaps it is exactly those experiences that lead me to conclude that not only is swarming easier, but that it is better.
It is better to socialize decisions with those that are involved in them — not as a mealy-mouthed “empowerment” exercise, but as a means to get the best ideas out in the light of day, to allow all to make their contributions and raise their concerns, and to recognize what is good based on merit and not on personage. Louis Brandeis once said, “Light is the best disinfectant,” and socializing critical business decisions in an open forum based on merit, and not on politics, is a powerful model of business.
This cannot be effectively managed in large groups without the support of swarmth-based technologies. The complexities of balancing the variables of thousands of peoples’ comments about thousands of other peoples’ ideas and so on are too big for the human mind to grasp. Cognitive psychologists have established the limits of the human understanding of social groups, and we are configured for groups of no more than 150, the size of a proto-historical clan, where people can keep track of who likes who, who is whose cousin, and what does she like to eat. Beyond that, we lose track.
Obviously, swarms larger than 150 can be effective, but we need to rely on technology to do the heavy lifting: keeping track of merit, rating and even (perhaps) deciding who is wisest in groups so large that no one really knows everyone involved.
As a technocrat, I can envision a single swarmth infrastructure underlying a suite of swarm intelligence applications, so that people’s swarmth can persist over projects and be applied in different settings. Or that swarmth might become convertible, or fungible: movable between different systems. Or that swarmth could become a personal asset, linked to your digital identity, like your e-mail address or AIM screen name.
The socialized enterprise is coming. It is emerging in feedback-based blog networks that companies are starting to use internally to manage planning and knowledge. It is emerging in swarm intelligence technologies like CompanyWay. It is being rolled out in expertise management solutions like Tacit. However packaged or implemented, swarm intelligence is likely to force a reevaluation of how companies are organized and managed — and it’s long overdue.
Note: Since writing this column, I learned that CompanyWay has been acquired by AskMe, a leading enterprise knowledge management technology vendor. Most of the features of CompanyWay are subsumed by AskMe capabilities, and AskMe plans to support the principles that drove the development of CompanyWay. Existing clients will be supported indefinitely, and transtioned into future releases of AskMe.