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To Make Sense of the State Department's Opinion Space, Think Robots. Yes, Robots.

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, March 18 2010

Last week came word that the U.S. State Department was launching a project called Opinion Space, a participatory, online experiment in mapping global public opinion. It was intriguing, exciting, engaging. It was also, how shall we say, the slightest bit inscrutable. Just what is this thing, really? So I rang up Ken Goldberg and asked him. Goldberg is a robot builder, artist, and director of the University of California at Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM), the State Department's partner in the Opinion Space experiment. What follows are some quick notes on our conversation.

Goldberg traces the roots of Opinion Space back more than a decade. "We got interested in the idea of collaborative filtering in 1997," he says, referring to his group at BCNM, and the study of applying algorithms to collective decision making. It's the same technology that powers book recommendation engines, for example, explains Goldberg. Their interest sprang from a reaction against, he says, what they were witnessing in the tech world at that time. From artificial intelligence to the early online space, the models seemed all too cut and dry, predicated on a "very clean, binary world." Fast forward to the aughts. Goldberg started seeing the same miscues in the social media realm of Facebook and Twitter. "The model that is often used is that there is a binary relationship -- friends or not friends, followers or not followers. All the nuances are not being all that well captured." The result is a world of cyberpolarization, says Goldberg, citing an idea floated by Professor Cass Sunstein (now Director of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Cass Sunstein) in Republic 2.0. "You think everybody agrees with you," says Goldberg, "and you get more and more extreme."

"But the real world isn't like that," he goes on. "Everything is messy and shades of gray." The real world -- and the world of robotics. (Yes, you were promised robots.) That's Goldberg's particular field of expertise. Robotics is a world of influences and adaptation, where individuals -- whether human or equipment -- exist in a space where they're have to be prepared to bump into other individuals, with their own needs and expectations.

Which brings us to Opinion Space. (Remember, these are quick notes.) The way the State Department experiment works is by asking respondents to judge, on a sliding scale, how strongly they agree or disagree with five statements about the world. The topics at hand range from the necessity of empowering women to the threat of nuclear-equipped terrorists. "People feel more comfortable," says Goldberg, "answering questions that allow them to convey a sense of gradation." Opinions are plotted on a graph, with more like-minded opinions clustered together. But it isn't the opinions nearest to your own that are meant to be of interest. It's those that are farthest away. Step two of Opinion Space is rating other people's opinions on not only whether you agree with them or not, but whether or not you find them insightful. It's that ability -- to connect with those folks who you differ from but whose opinions you might still value -- that Opinion Space aims to convey.

"Hopefully there will be this curiosity to click on other people" whose dots glow on the other side of the screen from your own, says Goldberg. And, in fact, there's a bit of a competitive element to the project, in a way. Extra points go to those whose opinions are found to be most insightful but those who disagree with them most. There's also an element of work-flow here. The State Department is trying to engage online, says Goldberg, but the amount of input flowing their way can be overwhelming without some social mechanism to manage the conversations.

"It's experimental. It's important to convey that," says Goldberg.

It's an experiment that actually has its roots in the Obama campaign. "It really goes back to Alec Ross," says Goldberg. At the time, Ross was managing Barack Obama's outreach to the technology world. Today, he's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Senior Advisor for Innovation. Goldberg showed Ross an early version of Opinion Space, and after the election, Ross made moves to bring it in as a State Department project. The project has been funded through Goldberg's group at Berkeley. "Not a single dollar" in State Department funding has gone to Opinion Space, he says, other than staff time. Goldberg reports that about two thousand people have registered on Opinion Space in the week since its launch. Based on prior iterations, he's estimating that about twenty thousand people have visited the site thus far.

But it's tough to know because, he says, working within government strictures can be difficult. The potential of the site is in, eventually, connecting people together based on their opinions (whether they share the same or opposite ones). But government has a funny thing about privacy, and the obvious applications of this technology -- giving people the ability to connect via Facebook, for example -- are made difficult when you're working with government. "We're not claiming that this is the answer by any means," Goldberg told me. "But we're fine tuning it, and learning a lot." Next steps, he says, probably include rolling out a new set of topic questions every month.