Tapping Into Other People’s Brains

Tapping Into Other People’s Brains

A new software tool may allow people to tap into other people’s brains, as scientists are working to take advantage of data that otherwise may just be lost.

The software forms “digital knowledge maps” of how users made decisions or figured out complex ideas. The software would blend in with users’ Web browsers and build digital maps that show the thought processes people go through as they research and collect information on the Internet, and then make the map available for others.

The result will help others work through decisions and ideas much more quickly, as well as add their own insights to the process in a seamless way.

According to researchers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon Human Computer Interaction Institute, Americans spend more than 70 billion hours a year mentally processing data they collect online, whether it’s trying to decide what mobile gadget to buy or what kind of puppy they should adopt.

“The problem is just about all of this effort is lost because no one else is benefiting from it other than you and you yourself in a few months have probably forgotten a lot of what you learned,” Aniket Kittur, of the institute, said. “Yet in most cases, when someone finishes a project, that work is essentially lost, benefiting no one else and perhaps even being forgotten by that person. If we could somehow share those efforts, however, all of us might learn faster.”

“As you start to get more people using these, we start to get more structure emerge that is common to people who have different goals,” Kittur explained.

Tools like this could have many implications. To begin with, tapping into collective knowledge could be used in commerce, as people benefit from others’ Web searches, taking that knowledge to help them make more efficient complete decisions.

For example, if someone is trying to decide between an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy, the old ways of searching may have people trying to decipher between often-confusing statistics. However, a digital knowledge map may help the buyer determine what factors have led other people to make the choices they did, and guide them to choose a phone based on what’s really important for their personal needs — not a decision based on numbers and advertising.

Knowledge mapping may also help in several other industries, including travel, scholarly research, or anywhere that other Web searchers have invested a lot of knowledge and processed what they’ve learned.

The software may also shift how people process the information they gather themselves online. The researchers, using eye tracking, showed as the knowledge maps are modified by more users, new people using them spend less time looking at a site’s specific content elements, but look more at structural parts such as labels.

However, the science is not complete, and researchers said there are still many problems in getting people to use all the brain mapping the software can provide.

The participants in a study favored maps made by a succession of users, not a map created by one other person. They also tended to favor their own brain maps, not those made by one other person.

Scientists said it may be possible to get around that problem by using automated maps that look as if they’ve been revised by multiple users. If this happens though, people who depend on others’ thoughts — rather than trusting their own — may end up making decisions based on research devised by a scientist, instead of through others’ true thought processes.

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