May 8, 2012 at 1:44 PM ET
Researchers are working on a new software tool that will allow us to tap other people's brains as we try to make sense of information online.
In the United States, we collectively spend 70 billion hours a year trying to mentally process the data we collect as we surf the Web and try to decide things such as what new gadget to buy or where to go on vacation.
"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 with Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, told me Tuesday.
He and his colleagues are working on software that blends in with your Web browser and builds so-called digital knowledge maps that represent the thought process you go through to make decisions and then makes that map available to other users.
"Then they can process things faster or more deeply and that in turn will make it easier for the people coming after them," Kittur explained. "So there’s this idea of a virtuous cycle that we set up if we can all benefit from each other’s sense-making ability."
For example, when an inexperienced photographer goes to buy a new digital camera, they might think that the number of megapixels is important. Those who have recently gone through this exercise, though, will have learned that sensors, not megapixels, are more important for today’s cameras.
A readily available digital knowledge map would, in theory, push the novice photographer down this path to considering sensors over megapixels more quickly than if they had to come to that realization alone.
They then might improve the map by detailing how to think about cameras best suited for family photos versus a wildlife safari.
“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.
These maps only become useful to other people after they have been created and modified by at least four previous users, he and his colleagues found in a recent study with 21 Microsoft employees. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC.)
Kittur presented the results Monday at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Austin, Texas.
The study participants reported they would rather make their own map than use one that had just been created by one person, as if saying that one person’s thought process is no better than their’s alone. And that presents a problem: How do you convince people make and use new maps?
Kittur calls this the “first hump paradox.” To get over the hump, the team is considering structures such as a pay-it-forward scheme where you have create and use some early stage maps before gaining access to ones that have been used by several people.
The team is also working on an interface for the maps that makes building one a useful exercise to the person doing it, by, for example, helping them organize their thoughts.
"The tools … are not trying to actively help someone else, but just by using our tools, we are capturing those cognitive traces and we’re combing them so that other people coming after you can benefit from them,” Kittur explained.
The team hopes to have the interface available to the public in two to three months.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.