The Galaxy Zoo is a neat little site with a long list of prestigious universities behind its development. It harnesses the power of human cognition to allow users to look at pictures of galaxies and classify them for future research. Humans are way, way better at this visual processing tasks than computers, as it turns out.
The site itself is easy to use. You register, look at a one-page tutorial, and then you are off, counting the arms of spiral galaxies and flagging unusual astronomical features in photos. The bulk of the galaxies I classified were smooth and dull, but that just made the occasional brilliant spiraling galaxy more exciting. There is an option to check if you see anything unusual – I daydream that when I press this option a fleet of goggle-wearing scientists in lab coats receive an emergency page and scurry to a computer to see the anomaly.
This is a great game for wasting time – just fun enough to hold my attention and easy enough a child could do it. In fact, in a Scientific American podcast (click here to listen) with Yale astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski, one of the project’s creators, Schaminski said that was one of the great things about the Galaxy Zoo – parents get online and classify galaxies with their children, getting them excited about scientific research.
The Galaxy Zoo isn’t the only project out there that harnesses the power of the internet and the human brain. Called human-based computation, these projects usually seek to accomplish what otherwise might have been the world’s worst temp job and turn the task into a game shared by a huge network of people. The ESP Game makes image search engines work better by having two players look at an image and guess what descriptive words the other player uses to tag the image. The tags that the players agree on then become associated with the image and improve its searchability.
Can you count the spiral arms? Of course, you are a human.
ReCAPTCHA is the bookworm cousin of CAPTCHA, those annoying squiggling letter tests that verify your humanity for all sorts of online activities. ReCAPTCHA puts a handwritten word already known to the computer alongside a untagged word from manuscript. The user types both in, verifying their humanity and coding word in a manuscript in one fell swoop. Best part is, putting reCAPTCHA on your site is free. Although perhaps both CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA might fall into disuse if Slate’s Chris Wilson is correct that increasingly sophisticated bots are learning to read these images as well as humans – or, possibly, that spammers get around this security measure simply by outsourcing the human cognition overseas.
Some of these sites will even pay the human workers. The Amazon Mechanical Turk is the only one I am prepared to say is not a scam. Not a get-rich-quick scheme by any means, but you can put your human brain to work and earn yourself a few Amazon dollars through this site.
If you are looking to tap the power of your computer rather than your brain, a list of active distributed computing projects that use a portion of your computers CPU can be found on Wikipedia here.