Even U.S. intelligence agents make decidedly unintelligent decisions at times. So it may not come as a surprise that the government is willing to invest in any project that could help agencies spot and correct their own decision-skewing prejudices–even if that project is a video game.
Dubbed “Sirius,” the anti-bias project is the brainchild of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a government agency whose mission statement might as well have come from a spy novel: to invest in “high-risk/high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries.”
One of those overwhemlming advantages: clear, bias-free thinking. That’s why computer scientists, gaming experts, social scientists, and statisticians will descend on Washington, D.C. in February to discuss the program. The focus of the Sirius project is on “serious games,” or educational video games. As IARPA reports:
Those unearthly howls, shrieks, and grunts that burst out of tennis players’ mouths may do more than just fill the silence of tennis stadiums. A new study suggests that a player’s grunt might slow down the response time of her opponent, giving the grunter an advantage.
For the study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers asked students to watch videos of a tennis player hitting a ball; some shots were accompanied by a soft grunt, others were performed in silence. For each shot, the student had to indicate which side of the court the ball would land on by hitting a keyboard key.
According to the study, “The results were unequivocal: The presence of an extraneous sound interfered with a participants’ performance, making their responses both slower and less accurate.”
Recent work by David Pizarro at Cornell is shedding light the role that race and ethics play in politics, by asking people to sacrifice the lives of either Tyrone Payton or Chip Ellsworth III.
OK, they didn’t really have to sacrifice anyone, but each participant in the study was faced with a variation of the classical ethical dilemma called the “trolley problem.” The trolley problem asks the question: Would you push someone on to the tracks (and kill them) to stop a trolley holding 100 people from crashing (and killing them all)?
The paper (pdf) describes the twist that Pizarro and colleagues put on the trolley question when they asked it to California undergraduates:
Half of the participants received a version of the scenario where the agent could choose to sacrifice an individual named “Tyrone Payton” to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic, and the other half received a version where the agent could choose to sacrifice “Chip Ellsworth III” to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra.
Shown pictures of other children and asked to pick birthday party attendees, six- to eight-year-olds did not care about gender or shirt color with any statistical significance. But they did care if a possible invitee had strabismus–a condition when a child’s eyes don’t line up while focusing, often resulting in crossed eyes or squinting. This heart-breaker brought to you by the British Journal of Ophthalmology.
The photographs included identical twins: children in four pairs of pictures looked the same, except for their digitally altered shirt colors and eyes. Given four chances to pick children with strabismus, 18 of 48 children did not select any child with the disorder. None picked the child with the eye disorder on all four opportunities.
The researchers say the study indicates that parents may want to consider corrective surgery before children with strabismus turn six–apparently the age when kids take a turn for the shallow.
Younger birthday boys and girls appear to care less about what their invitees eyes looked like: Of 31 children between the ages of four and six, the researchers found that 9 children picked kids with strabismus three or four times. Only one meanie didn’t pick any children with an eye disorder.
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Image: flickr / Spojeni
Remember that water-filled Magic 8 ball you used to consult? That decision-making toy has gone high-tech, thanks to a new service called Hunch, created by one of Flickr’s co-founders. The site enters information about you into an algorithm developed by MIT computer scientists. It then formulates answers to personal questions, from what you should make for dinner to where you should take a vacation.
Here’s how it works: Just like on matchmaking sites like eHarmony.com, users create a profile by answering questions about themselves—up to 1,500 questions, in this case.
After your profile has been created, you can ask the site a specific question. Hunch’s algorithm will lead you through another series of inquiries to filter out undesirable choices and rank those that remain. Finally, the site presents you with what is supposedly your best option.