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Crowdsourced consensus

An interactive survey lets participants ask their own questions

A detail from an Uber studyPol.is Handout

Crowdsourced consensus
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Public opinion in Taiwan over proposed regulations for online liquor sales had already been deadlocked for six years when, last year, the government tried a new approach. Instead of relying on traditional surveys to map public opinion, officials employed a new, interactive survey tool called Pol.is.

Within months, the government finally agreed on a plan for online liquor sales. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, credits the crowdsourced survey tool for breaking the deadlock.

“It allowed different sides to gradually see that they share the same underlying concern despite superficial disagreements,” Tang told MIT Technology Review. The Taiwan government now uses Pol.is to gauge public opinion in real time on such issues as the regulation of Airbnb rentals and of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

In Pol.is surveys, users see a series of statements about an issue and are asked to agree, disagree, or pass. Users can add relevant statements of their own to the survey for others to vote on, but unlike the comment forums on social media sites, they can’t reply to statements.

Pol.is uses artificial intelligence to analyze the votes and the user-added statements in real time, uncovering clusters—what Pol.is founder Colin Megill calls “opinion groups”—and identifying areas of overlap and points of consensus.

Promising as Pol.is may sound, it might need more testing: Technology Review noted the survey platform would need to prove it could stand up to subversion attempts “from political pressure groups or mischief-makers.”


Elemental Dr. Shawn Green

Sailors and gamers

Many military service members spend some of their off-duty time playing video games. To young sailors or Marines, blasting aliens or enemy fighters in first-person shooter games such as Doom or Call of Duty may just be great entertainment. But research shows that playing action-oriented video games may actually enhance cognitive skills, including attention span, reaction time, visual acuity, and multitasking ability.

To take advantage of these benefits, the military wants to develop its own training-oriented games. Under a grant from the Office of Naval Research, Shawn Green, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, worked with a video game developer to create a customized first-person shooter game called Elemental. The nonviolent fantasy game (players “shoot magical spells at otherworldly creatures”) includes factors believed to boost human cognition, such as changing background colors, rapidly appearing and disappearing objects, and varied mission intensities.

“We know people will spend hours playing a video game,” said Ray Perez, a program manager in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department. “Is there a way to use some of those entertainment elements to design training that will keep warfighters engaged, help them learn faster, and perform their jobs better?”

Green is conducting experiments with student participants using MRI brain scans to document changes in brain activity before and after playing the game. Participants also complete a range of cognitive tests after six weeks of game play. Green hopes to have a refined version of Elemental ready for sailors and Marines within two years. —M.C.

Elevated bus

Elevated bus Luo Xiaoguang/Xinhua via AP

Bus bust

An innovative Chinese public transit concept—an elevated bus that straddled two lanes of automobile traffic—has ground to a halt. According to The New York Times, investigations into Huaying Kailai, the company behind the so-called Transit Elevated Bus, revealed questionable marketing practices that lured investors with promised annual returns of up to 12 percent. Beijing police arrested 32 company staffers in June on charges of “illegal fundraising.”

“The truth is the bus was a fake science investment scam,” complained a Beijing News op-ed on July 3. —M.C.

Michael Cochrane Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.


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