MIT's BeeMe giant social experiment puts a human under internet control
This Halloween scientists at MIT's Media Lab are embarking on a massive social experiment. Called BeeMe, the project will let internet users control a real human actor, suggesting, and collectively voting on, this person's every action. New Atlas reached out to Niccolo Pescetelli, one of the creators behind the experiment, to find out exactly what is about to happen.
BeeMe is an immersive interactive game that will kick off at 11 pm US EST on Halloween night. Users will be able to participate by logging into the BeeMe website from which they will be able to suggest, and vote on, actions that direct an actor in real life. A live video stream on the website will allow users to see what the actor sees.
On a superficial level BeeMe is a fun Halloween game, with a narrative telling the story of an evil artificial intelligence that has been accidentally released online. Users must collectively coordinate their efforts to direct the human actor to defeat this nefarious AI.
However, the real purpose of the experiment is to explore a deeper philosophical question. Can a crowd come together to collectively direct an individual's actions to achieve a singular goal? Or will the experiment simply descend into an assortment of nonsensical tangential actions?
Niccolo Pescetelli, one of the MIT researchers working on the project, developed the experiment in an attempt to answer these very questions. Pescetelli is hyper-aware of the trolling nature inherent to internet group activity but suggests this kind of social experiment has never been embarked upon with such a clear goal-orientated mission for people to achieve.
"So far we don't know whether crowds can maintain a goal 'in mind' and execute the correct sequence of actions that lead to its achievement," Pescetelli explains to New Atlas via email. "The dream is to design tools that allow large crowds to control 'on-the-fly' complex systems in a goal-oriented sequence of actions. We don't claim that BeeMe will succeed at this, but we want to open up the path to this possibility."
What will happen when the game switches on Wednesday night is at this stage a complete mystery, but the internet doesn't exactly have a great track record in crowdsourcing serious solutions. The Boaty McBoatface saga of 2016 being a perfect example of the internet's tendency, as a collective entity, to turn a serious proposition into an absurdist joke.
And what does Pescetelli think will happen when the game begins?
"I personally can see three outcomes, all equally likely. First, the crowd completes the goal that it has been given, namely the game mission. Yay. Second, the crowd establishes for itself and maintains a different set of goals (e.g. trolling the actor) and successfully executes them. Third, the crowd cannot achieve its goals (whatever they are) and acts as a headless chicken, jumping from non-sense to non-sense."
Practically speaking the gameplay will be relatively simple. Commands can be suggested by individuals, then are either upvoted or downvoted by all users, with the top-voted command communicated to the actor. Pescetelli is, of course, also aware of the internet's predilection for disturbing extremity and there are rules constraining the commands to ensure the safety, privacy and respect of all parties involved, including bystanders. So this won't devolve into a live-action version of Grand Theft Auto. However, Pescetelli does add that, "Everything else will be allowed."
If you are keen to take part in the game/experiment or just watch how this whole thing will play out, it kicks off at 11 pm EST on October 31st.