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May 04, 2007


Kristen Stubbs

Dr. Luis van Ahn at Carnegie Mellon University realized this several years ago and has done quite a bit of work on using "human computation" to do useful work. As he says:

Most of my time is spent inventing novel techniques for utilizing the computational abilities (or "cycles") of humans.

Applications of human computation so far include:

  • CAPTCHA, computer-generated tests that people can pass but that computers can't.
  • The ESP Game, in which people playing a fun online game end up labelling images (to improve image searches, to improve access to the web for the blind, etc.)

For more information, see Dr. van Ahn's research page for papers on the subject; he also has posted a video of his Google Tech Talk on human computation.

Peter Stewart

Chris, I saw you speak at the Technology Association of Georgia event - great speech. But...spare cycles? I don't know anyone in my circles who has a plethora of spare cycles. That circle tends to be white collar, technology focused...and all the spare cycles we have is focused on checking email at work, home, on the road (mobile wirelss email has taken up all our spare cycles). Further, all my spare cycles are taken up trying to make sure that I'm staying ahead of or at least in check with the increasing speed of innovation in the market that I compete in. I never get to all my email. I never get to file it away as I like. And I never read all the books and articles and websites that I would like. No spare cycles here from a person who wants to win in the market versus just survive. Anyone out there trying to win who has a bunch of spare cycles?


While I found the post highly interesting and thought provoking, I am going to nitpick about something tangential to the post

Come'n Chris, you're physicist. I'm disappointed at you! Tap dark energy? What the hell?

Sure hope you are not one of those zero point energy cranks, or even worse, that you have put some of your money in their mumbo-jumbo.

Chris Anderson


That'll teach me to write posts on a plane. You're right of course and I'd only meant it as a light-hearted intro (with the part about it only really powering superheroes). I take no view on the actual physics of dark energy, mostly because I don't actually know anything about it.



Chris Anderson


I feel the same way, but you and I (and probably most of the readers of this blog) are exceptions. Look around you. See how many people are bored from time to time at work, or doing Suduko on the bus. Heck, I'd argue that a good bit of TV watching is to avoid boredom at home. Yes, many of us are totally run ragged (overclocked!), too, but we're not the ones with the MySpace pages.


Matt Haughey

Great story. I created MetaFilter when I was bored at work, in a computer group at UCLA. I had barely scratched the surface of any scripting language in my day-to-day work and figured it'd give me some good practice when I got to build more complex apps for the university.

The best part was our group's director allowed us to host anything we wanted as long as it was personal and non-commercial in nature, so two or three other coworkers had small websites and webapps running on old home computers under their desks.

Jim Pick

There are a lot of spare cycles out there.

Mostly, they are a symptom of shitty, unfulfilling jobs though.

Wouldn't it be best to fix the actual jobs to eliminate the boredom?

Alice M

I don't think people do interesting things "because they are bored", but because they have found something interesting to do, and/or something different to do. What I mean is that writing for Wikipedia is a positive act, not a negative one, as you suggested. The fact that they write "for free" to me is the proof of the pudding : they are positively interested in what they're doing, and the interest itself is the best payment in the world.
Thus, the theory of "spare cycle" does not work for me. On the contrary, people do find time, and even *take time* to write for Wikipedia, they *take time* to read or blog even though piles of work are in store for them.

Craig Fitzpatrick

I've seen so many companies try to "optimize" their business the way you try to crank every spare second of "production efficiency" out of an assembly line. Then, realizing that they should spend at least "some" amount of time actually figuring out ways to improve their business (i.e. thinking creatively), they try to "institutionalize" creativity by having special teams responsible for creativity, or rather, special "times of year" (i.e. a retreat) where creativity is supposed to magically appear.

This is like saying, "you guys over here, your job is to think outside the box - but you over here, shut up and crank out more widgets!".

Instead, how about not cramming so much onto people's plates during their regular day or week that they actually have some time to reflect and think creatively about how to improve the business or at least their part in it?

Oh wait... They're supposed to do that on their own time! :P. I forgot.

Those spare cycles are gold. Creativity doesn't happen when you're rushing something out the door to meet a quota.


That is great.But how to use in action?

John K Hart

Your concept of 'spare cycles' makes sense, but your definition is too limiting. My human potential might be fully tapped at my job (thus by your definition - spare cycles=0), yet in the time available for the rest of my life, I can choose to create online content.

My life outside of work might be completely fullfilling, yet I might still choose to switch where I put some of my energy. I might also choose to transfer online something I was already doing offline (e.g. a hobby).

So you are correct, there are spare cycles, in that people at work can do other things besides what their job requires. But you are incorrect in alluding to that definition of spare cycles as the source of so much Internet content. This content is being generated for work, for fun while at work, and for fun from home. And it does represent an amazing proliferation of human energy.


Are you married? Do you have kids?.. Mmmm.. don't think so

Chris Anderson


Married with four little kids. I am by no means bored, nor, would I expect, are most of the people reading this blog. Just the opposite--we're grossly overextended and, to continue the computing analogy, overclocked. But for every person like us, there's someone who in at least some part of their day, is underused. They might have a lot of work, but it's of a nature that doesn't use their talents or knowledge to its fullest. They may have ideas that they can't tap at work, or passions that lie elsewhere.

Spare cycles don't just mean nothing to do, they mean capabilities that are not tapped by people day jobs. Too many of us are busy but unfulfilled. That's a form of spare cycles, too.



Well, aren't you all forgetting one thing? Or at least a company with a rather unique policy. Google's policy on the one "free" day a week for all their engineers is exactly how to tap into the spare cycles, even for people in very demanding jobs. Working at a global management consultancy (reputably very demanding job) I constantly see people browsing private mail, interesting news articles or just ads for new and better plasma screens.

However, if we were allowed to work on pet projects about things we really loved we would not spend a minute to browse People's website in the search of new Lindsay pics, we would work on possibly valuable and innovative projects at work.


Its the spare cycles which you have, which made you write this article and the spare cycles that I have, which is making me write this comment :)


In principle I agree with your blog about The Awesome Power of Spare Cycles although your incidental analogy of Web 2.0 principles and applications to Soylent Green caused me to stop reading for a moment to consider what it was you were intentionally or unintentionally saying.

In the film, Charlton Heston discovers that Soylent Green, a subsidized food ration, is composed of the recycled bodies of people who participated in a government-sponsored euthanasia program aimed at reducing overpopulation. The film ends with Charlton Heston bellowing his now culturally infamous revelation, “Soylent Green is People!”

Taken at face value, the reference was probably nothing more than pop culture throw away line in an otherwise perceptive analysis of untapped potential and energy in organizations. The quintessential message though in the film (and the book by Harry Harrison titled Make Room! Make Room! ) was that the world had become so overpopulated that people were voluntarily committing suicide after which they were being turned into food to feed the remaining populace.

So, Web 2.0 is People! It’s the collaborative global byproduct of Spare Cycles. It’s the tapped previously untapped energy of organizational and individual ennui. My objection is that the examples that you use to support his Spare Cycles theory by and large have little to no business application. MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and Second Life? Do you organizations want their employees participating in these communities on company time? A cyberstalker? My guess is that regardless of her job responsibilities she would have found the time to stalk the lead singer of Linkin Park. A Sheriff at a regional airport watching a movie on a portable DVD? You said yourself that flights were taking off at the rate of one an hour so if the movie was a result of spare cycles, what should the Sheriff had been doing and how does Web 2.0 apply?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the internet could experience an overpopulation problem, but there is a numbers problem that feeds the momentum that web 2.0 continues to gather. For example Technorati claims the Blogosphere has 75 millions blogs yet in reality the number is closer to 15 million. This type of statistical hyperbole is the Soylent Green of Web 2.0. The populace is fed numbers inflated with millions of dead or inactive accounts which in turn drives those not yet participating in web 2.0 to take a nibble to see if they like the taste. Even if they create a MySpace profile, a Twitter account and a Tumbleblog then give up on them, their accounts feed the numbers which feeds the hype which feeds the people.

I know I sound cynical, but in truth I too see the potential in Web 2.0 to create collaborative environments, global communities of co-creation and platforms of engagement, but it’s not enough to say that the presence of Web. 2.0 technologies is the answer to spare cycles and untapped energy and potential. How will it create meaningful work? How will it engage an apathetic workforce? How will it tap the energy that exists in organizations?

For all the potential that Web 2.0 possesses it alone will not end spare cycles while bringing down the walls blocking co-creation to the degree necessary for 21st Century success. Whereas collaborative software and approaches, peer-to-peer platforms and social networking tools can create new spaces to dialogue and co-create, without an inclusive mindset and behaviors, the "old" behaviors and spare cycles will just form in this new technology container.

If we aren’t careful with how we use, promote and encourage the use of Web 2.0 technology organizations may someday be overrun with people finding outlets for their spare cycles by posting their pictures on Flickr, updating their MySpace Profile and watching videos all day on YouTube instead of playing Solitaire. And from these organizations there will echo the collective outcry of, “You Maniacs! You blew it up. Damn You!” Sorry, wrong Charlton Heston film.


This has been one of the most interesting blog posts that i have ever read. Simple yet so complex in nature. Would you define spare cycles as being something we do to deal with our everyday routine?


Personally I use my spare cycles for work and put my intense focus into open source dweebish obsessions!

There is a Borat-like misunderstanding all over the world that marriages and other valuable things can't happen without an exchange of money. Chris Di Bona has an excellent dissection of this on FLOSS Weekly.

It is a pervasive terminology problem, too. For example, on a computer with Folding@Home installed, primary CPU cycles are used to play video games and download lolcat photos, while "spare" cycles do potentially life-saving medical research.

I think all economic progress is the transition of things from a buy-and-sellable sphere (wives, children, animals) to a personal one. There is no reason the hours between 9 and 5 cant do the same. People tend to assume there must be a market discipline to force-fill all the little economic nooks to which nobody has a romantic attachment. That may be true but then I've fixed sewer lines too, it's not the end of the world. I would do it for free for all kinds of reasons.


So, maybe Hitler and all Germans where bored also and do war..


So... you are bored AND additionally you are a bit stupid, so you write a silly post in a blog. Nice.

Anuack Luna

Hola ignorante.

La diferencia de nosotros a personas como usted, es que ganamos dinero por divertirnos y aportamos nuestro cerebro en cosas interesantes. No en estupideces como lo ha escrito


This is a phenomnenal post. The best I have read so far at your blog. I think is absolutely a great concept that you should research further.

When I was in mgmt. consulting, we did a study on the time spent per media channel and we added it all up and basically figured that work must have not been for than a few hours (even after backing out multi-taking hours)

There is also a study that Gartner did on the productivity loss because of surfing etc. I also read an article a year or so ago and Mark Burnham (sp??), the producer of Survivor saying how "Office it the new prime time"


That is great.But how to use in action?

William Koplitz

With over a quarter of a million views, it seems like "Human Computation", a video from the Google TechTalk Video series, starring Luis von Ahn is a great source of information about how to use these wasted cycle and human computational power. I really recommend the video. von Ahn is a genius.

David Thibault

This comment is in response to Peter Stewart saying he had no spare cycles.


How did you find time to read and comment on this blog? Spare cycles...=)


Echoing others, this is truly interesting.

As a small-business person, I'm struck by the notion of "spare" and surprised to even think of people being bored at work -- though your blog reminds me. (Moving through a client's operation on a photo shoot, we pass through a room with five people playing cards, and it wasn't their lunch hour!)

But, my contribution is the challenge of balance. As you said, Chris, too many are underfilled though really busy. I am taken by the time-management system from Dan Sullivan of the Strategic Coach (http://www.strategiccoach.com/) -- one that suggests organizing time in three categories: focus days where one creates value; buffer days for learning and admin and free days for rejuvenation and relaxation.

Benjamin Hill

Over at inChorus, we are a BIG believer in exactly this - that people's time is wasted when you try to bombard them with advertising, but if you actually ask them to *think*, you're getting real value out of moments of their time.

If you have a niche that would really get a boost out of spare brain-power, let us know, and we will see if we can help out.

Julian Ahmed

Hmmm very interesting...

I'm currently researching for writing a book which kinda taps onto the concept. Basically I'm effectively one of the myriad people in the very very end of the "long tail" of dance music. I've been a DJ for about 14 years on the rave and techno circuits in the UK, got into sound engineering in a semi-professional basis, set up a couple of record labels and run the odd event. That was basically done in my "spare cycle" time as my proper career is as a medic (currently junior doc being screwed over by DoH training reforms but that's a whole other ball game).

Just before Christmas last year I relaised that for the past couple of years have been inadertently giving advice and help to other peeps I know so started writing a "blaggers guide to starting up small business" based on hard earned experiences learnt from multiple failures. I got stuck after a 6000 words so started interviewing my some of my friends who've done similar things. Realised that alot of the people i know are all doing stuff in their non-work time, little bit by little bit and actually getting quite far albeit on a much longer time scale.

Only just started reading "the long tail" book after hearing it mentioned in a BBC documentary, but pretty much covers alot of factors relating to how things have shifted over past decade. when I started out was alot harder to do stuff, but now can be done in half the time which allows for the development creativity aspects...


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I'm guessing the rise of Twitter and other microblogs are based in part on people tapping into their 'spare cycles'. 140 characters of text fits into the GTG 2-Minute Rule.

Alix Axel

The video from Luis van Ahm is very informative.

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The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Notes and sources for the book

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