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'Micro-Play' -- Getting the Crowd to Have Fun While It Earns You Money

Peter Diamandis   |   February 25, 2013    1:45 PM ET

In this blog, I interview Luis von Ahn, a brilliant entrepreneur and game-design strategist and continue my exploration of how online games can help the crowd sort through data in a fashion that is both Fun and Free.

When you log into certain websites, sometimes the site makes you copy a bunch of blurry, squiggly, "drunken" letters to prove you're a human instead of a bot. Did you know that when you're typing in those letters, you're actually helping to digitize old books and newspapers through a service called reCAPTCHA? In this interview I sat down with its creator, a visionary entrepreneur named Luis von Ahn. (For more details, check out von Ahn's 2008 Science Magazine article called "reCAPTCHA: Human-Based Character Recognition via Web Security Measures.")

I began the interview by getting Luis's background. A computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon, Luis was pondering how humans interact with computers, and what people could do better than computers. He remembers thinking, "There are a bunch of problems that computers cannot do: Why can't we just get people to solve them for us?" Back at the turn of the millennium, Luis said, "nobody had realized this power of the Internet. The word 'crowdsourcing' didn't exist." So Luis came up with this idea of a game to see for himself how he might tap into the power of the crowd through its game-playing.

One thing that humans still do better than computers is recognize images. In one of Luis's earlier games, originally called ESP Game, he gamified the process of labeling images. "The way the ESP Game worked was this: two random people were paired with each other and they got the same image on their screen and were told to type whatever the other guy was typing," he said. "People typed a lot of words related to the common image. I realized that if we could get two people to agree on the same word, that would be a really good signal it's a good tag for that image," he said. But there was a caveat: "Turns out that wasn't quite enough in it to make it fun," Luis said.

"The way to make it fun was by adding a timer." Both players, randomized from different parts of the globe, entered possible words until they had a match. The game then showed them the next image. They had two and a half minutes to label 15 images. "It turns out that the time component for this really made it a lot more fun," he said.

"In fact, that was the entire motivation: to enjoy oneself for a few minutes online." Luis's estimate was that over the course of four years, some 10 million people played the ESP Game and labeled some 100 million images.

Even though the game was later acquired by Google and operated under the name Google Image Labeler to improve image search, the game is no longer available for play. "There's a good reason for that," Luis said. "It lasted about five or six years as a popular game, and then it started losing popularity. That's the thing with games. You've got to keep on. Almost no game lasts."

This idea of doing two things at once -- playing and contributing to research or analysis -- eventually led to the creation of reCAPTCHA, "where we started getting people to do useful work while they're typing the CAPTCHA," Luis said. "We are getting people to digitize books while they're doing this," he said. The number is colossal: All told, about 200 million CAPTCHA squiggles are typed in a day. Why not tap into that?"

"The thing is, each time you type one of those you waste about 10 seconds of your time," Luis said. "If you multiply that by 200 million, you get back that humanity as a whole is wasting around 500,000 hours every day." The inspiration was this: Why not use the phrases from books to be digitized as CAPTCHA squiggles and have people do two things at once?

As the company's website explains, "reCAPTCHA improves the process of digitizing books by sending words that cannot be read by computers to the Web in the form of CAPTCHAs for humans to decipher. More specifically, each word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is placed on an image and used as a CAPTCHA."

I asked Luis to pick out three lessons he'd learned from creating his games. Here's what he selected:


  1. Online games for data-mining have a short virtual shelf life. People get bored, especially if the game seems stagnant.

  2. The games must be fun AND the data must be worthwhile. Luis created a game called Verbosity, "but the data I collected was not that useful," he admitted. "The idea was to collect what are common-sense facts, such as milk is white and water is wet. The idea is, if only computers had common sense they could be as smart as us. We were able to collect a lot of common-sense facts with this game. The problem is, the facts that we were collecting were just not very structured so we had a bunch of facts but we didn't take that a step further to make them useful to some sort of reasoning engine."

  3. Choose "Cooperation" or "Competition." "In your game design, you can either have your players competing or cooperating. That's kind of a big, big difference," Luis said. "For example in the ESP Game you were not competing with the other guy you were cooperating with them. You both got points together. That, I think, attracts a different type of player. You can experiment with both types to see whether to make the game cooperative or competitive."


With gamification, a company can actually do something that had not been doable, Luis said. "Sure we can do all kinds of things we weren't doing before [with computers], but I don't think we've covered 50 percent of what we need to cover. Anything having to do with language and visual recognition is very hard." And for the foreseeable future it will require both humans and computers -- and games.

In my next blog, I'm going to look at Duolingo, another company Luis co-created, and I'll explore his 10 steps a company can take to ensure the successful gamification of a project.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

Arianna Huffington's Top 10 Lessons for Entrepreneurs

Peter Diamandis   |   February 22, 2013    1:06 PM ET

In this blog, I'll share with you what I learned from Arianna Huffington on creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation -- 10 key lessons of extraordinary benefit to any entrepreneur or CEO.

I've gotten to know Arianna Huffington very well over the past few years. We share a common Greek heritage and she sits on my board at the X PRIZE Foundation. Arianna is both the force behind the Huffington Post and a force of nature herself -- a brilliant, powerful and loving person. When I talk about taking bold actions in the world, few things are bolder than creating the Huffington Post from scratch and reinventing the newspaper business. In 2012, this work was recognized when Huffington Post (now part of AOL) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

In August 2012, at Joe Polish's 25K Abundance event, I sat down with Arianna to talk about what inspires her, what worries her, and what bold ideas she's most excited about. She was remarkably frank about how she tries to be different, what drives her, how she comes up with ideas, how she stays focused, how she taps into her creativity and how she manages expectations.

We began the interview talking about taking BOLD actions in life -- specifically what advice she has about pushing the frontier. She addressed how she deals with failure and criticism and where she looks for inspiration. Here are the key points that she herself follows in doing BOLD things:


  1. Think differently from other entrepreneurs by accepting failure and learning from it. "There are a lot of failures along the way," Arianna said. "I always stress that. I have two daughters, one just graduated from college, the other a junior, whom I always talk to about my failures." Entrepreneurs need to address the possibility of failure, she said, "because so often, I think, the difference between success and failure is perseverance and not giving up after one or two or three failures. Just keep connecting to that place where failure doesn't matter," Arianna said. "If we become so dependent on things always being a success, then we're in a very vulnerable position -- because we're not in control of how the world is going to receive something," she said. "I'm reading Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman emperor and a Stoic, about how to get to the place where bad things can happen and you are not affected by them. This is now my ambition because I think that from that place then you can act so much more effectively."

  2. Pick something you are passionate about that aligns with the zeitgeist. "For me, the most successful enterprises are always when the entrepreneur's passion matches something happening in the zeitgeist... There is a spirit of the times," Arianna said. "There are things that are happening, that have the wind on their backs and when we tap into them and when our passion converges with what is happening in the world then magic happens. It doesn't mean there's no hard work, but definitely entrepreneurs have the wind on their back. For me the Huffington Post was something like that. I mean, being Greek I was always about connections and conversations. The beginning of the Huffington Post was actually, then, just taking those conversations and moving them online. I could see that the important national conversations were moving online."

  3. Relax in order to get your best ideas. "I'm very interested in how people get their ideas." Arianna said. "A lot of my ideas come in moments of peace, relaxation, hiking and reading. Something completely unrelated. Not in moments of dealing with my email or cleaning out my inbox," she said. "There is a great book by Arthur Koestler called The Act of Creation that tracks where great scientists get their ideas, not just the ones that we all know about. Again and again you come across the fact that creative ideas come in moments of relaxation, not in moments of stress. That's why if you talk to the people who've achieved great breakthroughs, whether it's Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, they all talk about how they manage their life. Bill Gates taking time to go in a cabin away from everything and read."

  4. Never tolerate a toxic person in your organization. "I heard Jeff Bezos say it best," said Arianna. "He said that he will not allow anybody in the company who comes to his attention who is toxic person, however talented, to stay in the company. I'm a big believer in that. Zero tolerance for toxic people. I would rather have somebody much less brilliant and who's a team player, who's straightforward, than somebody who is very brilliant and toxic."

  5. When hiring, trust your feelings. "When AOL acquired the Huffington Post and we had more resources, one of the hardest things I had to do was staff up rapidly. We're now almost at 700 employees," Arianna said. "I would spend weekends in hiring sessions that were like speed dating. Time is so precious, so I set up a system where I would have other people in the interview with me. I would participate for the first 10 minutes, and then leave them with editors to talk. In interviewing a candidate you know almost immediately if it's a 'no.' There's no need to spend more than that initial time."


    "You also know if it's a yes," she added, "that moment of falling in love. You know it's a yes 100 percent. The hard thing is in between. If there is any slight doubt about it, my answer is no. I don't proceed if I have any doubt because the hardest thing is hiring somebody who turns about not to be the right fit -- that mistake is very costly. We've all done it. It's problematic. So, 'If in doubt: Don't,' is a very good rule for me, whether in relationships or in hiring people."


  6. Handle criticism and public scrutiny by refusing to doubt yourself. "I wrote a book called On Becoming Fearless where I talk about the voice in our head, that voice of doubt which is ultimately your worst enemy," Arianna said. "You can deal with everything outside. The hardest thing is dealing with what I call the obnoxious roommate living in our head. That voice that doubts us and learning to deal with that with a sense of humor or the way we're educating a child is also eliminating a huge drain from our lives."


    When the Huffington Post first began, Arianna added, it received negative reviews from some quarters. "In fact, if you'll go back to the first day, some of the reviews were not kind. I've learned one of them by heart. It was: 'The Huffington Post is an unsurvivable failure. It is the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven's Gate all rolled into one.' A year later the woman who wrote that review emailed me and said, 'I was clearly wrong, and I would now like to write for the Huffington Post, to blog for it.' I said absolutely -- and that's the other thing. You never hold grudges. It's really again part of living in abundance."


  7. The truest drive comes from doing what you love. "I feel very blessed to be doing exactly what I love to do," Arianna said. "I feel very grateful. It doesn't mean that there aren't many things every day that happen that I wish didn't happen, challenges I'm dealing with, as we all are, but nevertheless the overwhelming sensation is one of gratitude."

  8. It's important to step back from work to recharge. "One problem is learning to unplug and recharge," Arianna said. As somebody who loves what I'm doing I think we run the risk of forgetting to recharge ourselves. I have a lot of rules around sleep. One of my rules is I never charge my devices near my bed. It's really important because you may wake up for whatever reason in the middle of the night and be tempted to look at your data. There is medical evidence that if you do, even if you go back to sleep it's not the same recharging sleep. You know what? What is it that can't wait? The other thing is a lot of people say oh, I need my iPhone by my bed because it's my alarm clock. Eliminate your excuses. We all know there's nothing better than waking up recharged and nothing worse than going through your day like a zombie."

  9. Find hope in the world by focusing on abundance. "I think the world is like watching a split screen. Depending on which side you are looking at you can be hopeful or despairing," Arianna said. "I focus on what gives me hope. It's key that we focus on abundance and surpluses rather than just our shortages. To that effect, I think, we in the media have not done a good job at spotlighting what is working. So, I think beginning to put a spotlight on what is working not just on what is not working is what gives me hope and we're doing a lot of that. On HuffPost we have a section dedicated to good news. We have a section called Impact, which is all about giving and what people are doing to transform the world."

  10. Build a tribe that will support you. It's important to have a group of trusted friends, colleagues and family -- who will support your efforts. "For me the tribe always started with my mother and my sister, which is very Greek," she says. "What's important, is the combination of whomever it is that helps us connect with ourselves, our mission and passion."


In my next blog, I'm going to dive into the world of gamification. A means of getting people to enjoy doing work for you, for free.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

8 Steps to Drive Innovation in Large Companies

Peter Diamandis   |   February 21, 2013    1:47 PM ET

This blog outlines how my friend Lajos created an atmosphere of innovation at GE HealthCare (Hungary) -- a lesson we'll all want to remember.

Most people want to be creative, but at big companies, they're often stymied by rules, regulations and fear of failure. Lajos Reich, chief technology officer for GE Healthcare (Hungary) ran an experiment giving his staff a no-strings-attached "week off" with which to do as they wished... Create, or go to the beach. What he found was a team of engineers hungry to create. Employees who, when given a specific window of unencumbered time, actually spent that time coming up with new ideas for the company.

A key part of Lajos' strategy was to get his engineers, who were typically stove-piped inside their disciplines, to work together across disciplines and to exchange best practices. He did this by organizing both an annual symposium and a monthly meeting at which engineers presented their work to each other independent of their team focus. He also created a number of competitions where engineers could demonstrate to other engineers -- and to company leadership -- their innovations.

Finally, Lajos also worked to make it easier for his employees to get patents for their work. What's the use of coming up with an idea if it goes nowhere? Historically, the patenting process was very time-consuming and cumbersome. This led to situations in which engineers dismissed novel ideas out of hand because of the difficulty in protecting the intellectual property.

"It was very complicated to submit a patent," Lajos tells me. "You had to submit it online, then if the patent was selected to proceed, people had to cooperate with attorney in the U.S. or India. Theoretically that's okay, but it killed motivation. The attorneys were in different time zones. The window to cooperate was small. The language was different. The patent attorneys were changing all the time and few understood the context of the design work."

To help break through this logjam, Lajos found and selected a local patent attorney -- in the same time zone, speaking the same language -- to work with his staff. "The attorneys could personally come to engineers and discuss how this patent can be best described, for the U.S. patent office and the European patent office," Lajos says. This sped up the patent process and reduced the frustration.

In addition, Lajos set an inventor fee. Now, a company generally owns all the ideas for which an engineer is developing working plans, but Lajos awards $1,000 to each inventor once the patent has been accepted. "It isn't for the idea itself, but for the working out of the idea," he says. "This motivates the people to work together with the patent attorney," he says.

But that was just one component of a much larger cultural change that Lajos engineered. Here is the eight-step plan he outlined to unleash creativity in a large organization:


  1. Before venturing into new territory, first assure that all corporate deliverables are met at best quality, highest speed and lowest cost. Accomplishing this first gives you and your team the credibility and freedom to next be creative and do something even more interesting, challenging and productive.

  2. Establish a strong culture that incentivizes innovative ideas even if they are not on the official technology roadmap. The trigger needs to be something concrete and demonstrable to receive the incentive, such as a "patentable prototype," not just an idea. Also, the staff should feel free to innovate wherever inspiration strikes.

  3. Continuously facilitate the sharing of knowledge and cooperation between independent engineering teams. The first step Lajos took was an annual Technology Symposium. Last year 220 engineers made 54 presentations to each other. The second step was a monthly Technology Seminar, followed by online unlimited open brainstorming. The results of this sharing of knowledge has been a very fruitful cross-pollination across a variety of specialties.

  4. Organize a competition. This can be part of the weeklong "vacation" in which engineers are free to create. In Lajos' case, the weeklong semi-sabbatical led to many ideas that would have never seen the light of day because the engineers were otherwise too busy. This one week helped unleash numerous ideas. The engineers were not only productive but extremely grateful for the opportunity to shine.

  5. Create an award that is emotionally attractive to the participants. "I find this much more powerful than monetary awards," Lajos says. Last year iPads were awarded for best prototypes. This or next year it might be DNA sequencing. Further along it might be something from the new exponential technologies. Ultimately, the prize is secondary to achievement.

  6. Expect and require tangible results that can be touched, tried, demoed, showcased. This forces engineers to think it through to the next level and creates physical representations that further inspire other engineers.

  7. Make sure that the winners are introduced to the company leadership, so that they are aware of those talents hidden in the depth of the large organization. Educate leadership to expect further surprising prototypes.

  8. Let the winners proudly share their results with the entire team to set an example for others and encourage further innovations going forward. The real prize is often the pride of success.


In my next blog I'm going to introduce you to Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and now editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, since its acquisition by AOL. Arianna and I will discuss her passion for creating, for innovation and for how to work up to one's peak.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

How Large Companies Can Innovate

Peter Diamandis   |   February 20, 2013    1:45 PM ET

In this blog, I am going to show you how one GE exec (at GE HealthCare Hungary) figured out how to instill a sense of creative freedom among the employees that led to a real burst in innovation.

Dr. Lajos Reich was an Executive Participant in a recent Singularity University session. When he told me his story of spurring innovation at his division at GE Healthcare Hungary, I literally booked an interview with him the next morning at 6 a.m. so that I could capture his story for my book "BOLD" and for this blog. I thought his story was THAT important for you to hear.

Lajos Reich is currently GE Healthcare's Chief Technology Officer in Hungary. On his way to this position, he worked at chief technologies at a small Connecticut firm specializing in lighting, then onto GE facilities in Cleveland, Ohio, Bangalore, India and, ultimately, Budapest.

"I learned a lot," he says. "First of all, the difference between leading a small company versus a large company. In a large corporation it's hard to be nimble, because people are so hard-pressed to do their work, and they're often kept isolated in their own departments or on their own projects, without interacting."

"When I returned to Hungary to take the CTO position, my goal was to foster greater teamwork -- literally to institute a complete cultural transformation."

Since his arrival in 2008, Lajos has not only increased the number of employees at that GE division by 50 percent, he has also dropped the company's attrition rate from 15 percent to 2 percent. Better than that, under his leadership, GE Healthcare is now responsible for generating 20 patents per year, which is more than any other company in the country. So how did he do that?

"Innovation is a modality," he says. "Before, my teams were separate. A big part of the change was to move them closer so they could learn from each other. "Here are the two principal things that I did," he says:


  1. "First, I started to host a technology symposium every year for all the engineers where they could hear across the divisional lines what they were all up to. Before, since teams did not work together very often, there was a tendency to reinvent the wheel." At last year's symposium 200 engineers gave 54 presentations. "This knowledge-sharing opportunity was so popular that I started a monthly technical seminar series, where people present their work to other GE engineers in a deeper context."

  2. "Second, I was actually inspired by your X PRIZE, and I wanted to create a competition to foster creativity. I was also inspired Google's 20 percent time, where they give each employee 20 percent of their time to innovate, no strings attached. So I ended up doing a combination of both in a very risky fashion," he says.


"I decided to create a competition for best innovation, with the prize being a 64G iPad (which, in fact, equaled around one month extra net salary for an average engineer). Rather than offering 20 percent more time, I offered people an entire week to do with as they wished. They could go to the beach, or shopping or even stay at home -- or they could work on an invitation and enter the competition. It was totally up to them.

"Engineers always complain that they do not have time to innovate. That there's too much documentation. They tell me that 80 percent of their time is spent on documenting rather than creating. So in this one-week competition I said: 'No documentation; just focus on creating and innovating. Do whatever you want. If you want to use your time to develop a prototype, great.' I gave them access to every resource and didn't disturb them with any last-minute meetings. They were totally free."

Lajos had conducted this experiment in innovation without letting his supervisors know and, should it have been a failure, he could easily have been sacked, he says. But the results were staggering.

The upshot: No one took any time off to go shopping or to the beach. The engineers formed 13 groups and came up with 13 different prototypes. Lajos created a one-day symposium to present the ideas. The management team selected the top three for awards, and six of the 13 have led to patents, with one or two of those products actually likely to become a marketable product for the company.

Many companies would not take the risk of giving engineers a whole week to innovate, Lajos says, "but a concentrated time does make a difference. They are not taken out from the flow of the idea, they can fully concentrate on it."

In my next blog I'm going to explore Lajos' steps for unleashing creativity.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

Missing the Innovation Mark: What's Wrong with Corporate America

  |   February 19, 2013    1:44 PM ET

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