Get off my lawn.

Friday, January 05, 2007


Some time ago, I wrote a post about the wisdom of crowds. I don't remember the specifics, but it had something to do with the idea that large groups of people tend to be more knowledgeable about things than individuals do. Obviously, I'm not thinking about the kind of idiotic group-think that comes out of most committees. Nor do I suggest that mobs of people ever do anything very smart. Crowd-borne wisdom has more to do with situations where large groups of individuals contribute to a sum of knowledge. Wikipedia is probably a decent example of such a situation. (Honestly, I don't know about that. As an individual, I'm not bright enough to answer that. If only I had access to a crowd. They would know.)

Anyway, in a post on the same subject, (A-list blogger and T-shirt supermodel) Kathy Sierra mentioned something that caught my eye, a game I got for my son this Christmas, called 20Q. This $8.00 game is freaky cool. You basically think of something -- anything -- and it starts asking you questions. Questions like "Can you put something in it?" "Would you find it on a farm?", etc. Then, after it asks 20 or so questions, it guesses what you're thinking of. And darned if it doesn't guess right 95% of the time. It's weird. I thought of "light switch", and it started asking questions. The answers were "no" for just about all of them, and I was thinking it had no chance of figuring it out. Then at the end, it said "light switch?" Wow!

Anyway, ever since encountering this game, I've been thinking about how it works. I couldn't come up with anything that didn't require a big server to be attached to it, and it probably still wouldn't have worked very well. But Kathy* said 20Q is the product of the collective intelligence of hundreds of thousands of people who have been playing an online neural-net-based version of this game on the 20q website for a few years. This game has "learned" what it knows from people. Which makes me wonder: You know those "Man on the Street" segments on Jay Leno? It would be interesting to let the less-than-bright folks from those segments play the online 20Q game, and see how dumb it gets by learning from them.

* No, I'm not on a first-name basis with Kathy Sierra, but it's awkward to keep using her full name, so cut me some slack.