The “pro-am revolution”

Virtual tourists

For years, the Swiss government has paid hikers to trek through the Alps and tell them what scenery they liked and didn’t like. When hikers discovered that a good view was being obstructed by trees, the government would unleash lumberjacks — and cows — to deforest the area, imagineering the scene back into the Platonic tourist ideal.

Recently, a couple of scientists got a different idea. They created a virtual version of the Alps, then programmed thousands of virtual tourists, each equipped with roughly the same aesthetics as the average tourist. Then they turned ‘em loose in the digital Alps and had them report back what looked cool and what didn’t. As The Economist reports:

An agent can be unleashed again and again on a particular part of the landscape, and will make decisions about where to go based on its previous experiences. After a few runs, agents start to avoid paths that they find uninteresting, and at the end of each simulation they provide feedback about their routes. Dr Nagel and the team use these data to work out how pleasurable each route was.

There’s a web site devoted to the project, with some rather cool visuals of the pathways the virtual tourists trod. That picture above is one part of the Alps; the colored blocks are the agents.

(Thanks to Roland for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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