Monthly Archives: May 2012

Brainput

Conversations between people include a lot more than just words. All sorts of visual and aural cues indicate each party’s state of mind and make for a productive interaction.

But a furrowed brow, a gesticulating hand, and a beaming smile are all lost on computers. Now, researchers at MIT and Tufts are experimenting with a way for computers to gain a little insight into our inner world.

Their system, called Brainput, is designed to recognize when a person’s workload is excessive and then automatically modify a computer interface to make it easier. The researchers used a lightweight, portable brain monitoring technology, called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), that determines when a person is multitasking. Analysis of the brain scan data was then fed into a system that adjusted the user’s workload at those times. A computing system with Brainput could, in other words, learn to give you a break.

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Facebook’s Telescope on Human Behavior

One way to describe Facebook is as the most extensive data set on human social behavior that ever was. Every month more than 845 million people record and share traces of their daily lives, relationships, and online activity through their friend connections, messages, photos, check-ins, and clicks. The richness of that information goes some way to explain why the company is expected to become worth more than $80 billion when it floats on the stock market later this year.

One research group inside Facebook, known as the Data Team, is tasked with the challenge of mathematically sifting through that data to look for patterns that explain the how and why of human social interactions. The people who do that, mostly PhDs with research experience in computer and social sciences, look for insights that will help Facebook tune its products, but have also begun to publish their findings in the scientific community.

The Data Team’s leader, Cameron Marlow, likens what they do to building a telescope, saying that the techniques they develop will transform scientific understanding of human behavior in the same way that astronomy transformed our understanding of the cosmos. Technology Review’s computing editor, Tom Simonite, met with Marlow at Facebook’s offices to hear about what the company’s data science can uncover.

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