Wednesday, November 11, 2015

THE POWER OF SOCIAL MATRIX : How online gamers solved the mysterious AIDS virus puzzle

While reading McKinsey’s “Ten IT-enabled business trends for the decade ahead” the very first IT-trend caught my attention. I would like to place my bet on “The social matrix” as one of the most promising trends in IT industry. I will support my stand by addressing few questions that were put forth at the end of Mckinsey’s article. 

But, before doing that I would like to bring into focus what social matrix is trying to achieve Social matrix aims at harnessing the talent of people in social media and the internet in order to answer difficult questions, solve tough organizational problems and create innovations. This is like outsourcing a job to freelancers, but with a simple difference. The freelancers here are all the netizens. Crowd sourcing difficult problems, using social networks to share knowledge and using social portals to engage & attract new customers are some of the avenues being explored in the social matrix. 

 However, there are burning questions. How can you use the social matrix to locate and harness talent and capability outside your organization to solve problems? Is it even feasible? Are there organizational models to enable and drive social matrix.

The answer may well be a profound yes! Here are some examples that show how promising social matrix is when it comes to distributed problem solving one of its branches. 

Have you ever wondered if you were wasting time playing Farmville on Facebook? Think again. Below is an amazing story that will blow your mind. For 15 years Mason-Pfizer, monkey virus (M-PMV) an AIDS causing monkey retrovirus baffled scientists. After spending billions of dollars in research, scientists could not figure out the virus’ mutation mechanism and protein structure. In a last effort, the department of biochemistry at the University of Washington decided to outsource the job in a brilliant way. Collaborating with the university’s center of game science, they developed an online puzzle game called Foldit, which was based on protein folding. The objective of Foldit is to fold the structures of selected proteins as well as possible, using tools provided in the game. The highest scoring solutions are analyzed by researchers, who determine whether there is a native structural configuration (native state) that can be applied to relevant proteins in the real world. Scientists can then use these solutions to target, eradicate diseases, and create biological innovations.

The puzzle’s rules were simple.

·         There were specific shapes that were already provided.
·         Only certain shapes fit with others.
·         Each structure consumes certain amount of energy.
·         Life is frugal when it comes to spending energy to survive. The protein structure that consumes the least energy to mutate wins. 

The scientists waited and watched as more than 50000 online gamers downloaded the game in the first few days. Gamer solutions were posted to the university’s server were scientists analyzed the result. And within two weeks, something amazing happened. One line gamer solved the puzzle and built a protein structure that consumed the least amount of energy. When scientists ran the simulations using the structure, they realized that they had a major breakthrough in science. The time and money spent to solve the complex problem using the game was a fraction of what the scientists spent in lab.

Today many universities are using such games to solve complex scientific problems. People playing a game called “Planet hunters” have found several earth like planets in a different star system. “ Phylo” a game that looks eerily similar to candy crush saga is used to align DNA to identify genetic diseases. “Forgotten Island” is a game used to study the impact of pollution on the biosphere. And “Cropland capture” is another game that helps capture arable land to feed the planet.  

Scientists and gamers may look like a bizarre combination but they both work within a world were solving problems given a set of stringent rules and constrained budget is common. Humans are extremely good at recognizing patterns. Frame a difficult problem into a pattern spotting game that looks like candy crush saga or build a strategic arcade game like Farmville to optimize resources to produce goods online gamers may very well provide unimaginably optimized solutions. 

If corporations and organizations like universities can come up with such innovative problem delivery systems to netizens. We might very well see the next revolution that may forever change how organizations solve problems.

 Social matrix is a powerful tool and it is at its nascent stage. Science has already used it to its advantage. Government, media and corporations should also experiment with it in order to see what its true potential is.

Citation and references for the TA.
Netizen : This word is officially included in the Merriam Webster dictionary

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