Harnessing people’s boredom

People, it turns out, are generally bored. And boredom itself is a pretty interesting concept. I like to believe that I never get bored as there is always something to do. But that’s because I’m always using the old definition of bored that we all used when we were kids. When I was a kid other kids would plaintively look up to their mothers and say “I’m booooooooreeeeedd Mum, what can I do?” And I think a lot of other kids mothers would then find something for their child to do. “Here’s a game you could play or a movie you could watch”. Whereas my mother was more old school, she would say, “well I do need a hand picking gooseberries in the garden”.

Asking my mother for something to do wasn’t a mistake you made often. But it was a really useful way of making you never get to that bored stage. If you knew that the alternative was something that you didn’t want to do you would you would always make sure that you never ran out of things that you wanted to do (this is rather similar to the concept of dwarf bread – you take on a trip with you something so awful that you’d really have to be hungry to eat it and the knowledge that you have it with you conspires to keep you less hungry).

But once you’ve learnt the valuable lesson of how to stop yourself being bored you find yourself doing increasingly odd things to stop yourself from hitting rock bottom – watching tv programs that you don’t like, randomly surfing the internet hoping something comes up or playing solitaire?

In 2003 people around the world played solitaire for 9 billion hours! To give you a comparator it took 7 million hours to build the empire state building and 20 million to build the panama canal. The rate of humans to hours means that we are generating more than 1 million man hours of work for each hour of time that passes.

So researchers, led by Luis von Ahn have been trying to work out a way of harnessing this latent energy for productivity. Basically they’ve been trying to come up with a game that people still find fun to play, is simple enough that you can play it while your brain is on downtime (like solitaire) and that the result of playing is something productive.

The game von Ahn came up with is breathtakingly simple. It is “say what you see”. A picture pops up on screen and you have to type in a word or phrase that describes what it is that you’re looking at. At the same time another player is trying to do the same with the same picture. If you get the same label then you get points and you move on to the next picture. The productive part comes next when you realise who has been funding some of von Ahn’s research – Google. Google has a lot of pictures and doesn’t really have very good labels for these pictures. If two people who can’t communicate any other way both agree on the label for a picture then that is probably what is in the picture. If you would like to have a play it is here: http://images.google.com/imagelabeler/

I wonder what the next stage of this will be? With that much power available there has got to be some good stuff to do.

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