An open revolution


We are in the midst of an open revolution in science. This is a revolution towards doing research in the open, using online tools to share unfinished ideas and allow massive collaboration, but also an open revolt against the traditional model of publishing those finished ideas, in particular against the publishing giant Elsevier.

In his book Reinventing Discovery, Michael Nielsen (co-author of The Book in quantum information) is an enthusiastic chronicler of the rise of open science, and inspiring advocate for its success.  Some of his examples were familiar to me, like the arXiv or the polymath project.  But there were also some neat examples I had not heard of, like the Galaxy Zoo, where anyone can help classify galaxies, FoldIt, where users compete video game style to come up with low-energy configurations of proteins, or Kasparov vs. The World, where 50,000 people democratically played chess against Kasparov, doing much better than expected.

One example I was surprised not to find in the book was the stack exchange family of question and answer websites, mentioned previously on this blog.  Sites like math overflow or cs theory stack exchange, where people can ask research-level questions and expect to get informative answers in a matter of hours, have quickly become very useful research tools.

The end of Nielsen’s book is a call to arms, with suggestions of what scientists, programmers, citizens can do to develop open science, and also some fantasies of what open science might look like in the future.  One such idea I found quite cool was a sort of stack exchange meets eHarmony service.  This tool would automatically pair questions with respondents, based on the respondents expertise and questions they have successfully answered previously.  As Nielsen describes it, every morning a researcher would receive an email with a list of ten requests related to their expertise, which they could then choose to answer or not.

What I personally find the most exciting in the open science revolution is the development of open education.  The Khan academy deserves a lot of credit for innovation here, showing that students often prefer a short video that can be paused and replayed to a live lecture.  They now have over \(10^8\) downloads and 2600 videos.

Sebastian Thrun, who co-taught the Stanford online artificial intelligence class last semester that attracted 160,000 students, recently gave a talk about the experience which I think is well worth watching.  Thrun says that this experienced changed his life, and the talk is surprisingly heartfelt and emotional.  He also has some harsh words for the current university teaching model: “Miraculously, professors teach today exactly the same way they did 1000 years ago.  University has been, surprisingly, the least innovative of all places in society.”  Nielsen also addresses this point in discussing the low rate of participation of researchers in Wikipedia.

Thrun further says that after teaching 160,000 students (of which 23,000 completed the course), he can’t go back to the old way of teaching the 200 in his normal Stanford classes.  He gave up tenure at Stanford in April of last year and now has began a startup, udacity, focused on producing online classes.  Two classes are on tap for the first offering, CS101 going from zero programming experience to programming a web search engine, and CS373, programming some of the algorithms under the hood of a driverless car.

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