Blockchain meets Gamification: introducing the COBRA platform for cooperative optimization
Stefano Dalla Palma, Remo Pareschi: University of Molise, C.da Fonte Lappone 86090 Pesche (IS), Italy
Damian Andrew Tamburri: Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS), Sint Janssingel 92 5211 DA ’s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands
Gamification applies game design and game principles to non-gaming contexts, to improve the involvement of stakeholders in social ecosystems such as companies, government organizations and citizenries. Several case studies have shown that gamification has generally performed very well, with employees producing more and better, information flowing more smoothly and effectively, citizens more involved in relevant events such as electoral consultations and so on and so forth.
The use of gamification for crowdsourcing purposes has been studied even further, particularly in the context of ICT technologies and one of the most successful recent applications has been the Netflix prize challenge where concurrent machine-learning campaigns were encouraged to improve Netflix’s own recommendation system.
COBRA (Coopetitive Optimizing Blockchain for Research Advances) is a prototype platform that aims to bring this trend one step further into realizing its full potential by marrying gamification with another powerful technology: the blockchain.
Blockchain technology has indeed recently gained massive attention from the media and companies worldwide, mostly because of its capability to record tamper-proof transactions across very large peer-to-peer networks of computers.
To the broader public, blockchain is synonymous with cryptocurrencies, since the Bitcoin pioneered its first large scale application, but the business community is increasingly realizing it can go much further than that, because of its ability
(i) to create a history of certified information, and (ii) to automate the execution and reporting of transactions across multiple stakeholders. The use of gamification in this context leverages the powerful architectural capabilities of the blockchain to achieve the goal of fostering a collective intelligence structured as a marketplace of participants (human, machine, or otherwise) such that they all contribute whatever is within their reach (computational power, skills, creativity etc.) towards a predefined research goal in a decentralized and secure fashion.
Thus, the blockchain shall be used as a support technology in order to structure the crowdsourced solution for a given problem as well as the continuous improvement of such solution itself.
Our target is given by optimization problems that find practical applications in a variety of fields such as e-commerce, logistics, scheduling, robotics, traffic management, storage allocation and that often apply in areas where there is no existing best solution. A considerable number of problems can be defined via the maximization or minimization of some desired objective, hence approaches to problem solving, learning or discovery that employ a practical method to reach that objective, such as a meta-heuristic, are applicable to a broad range of domains including the ones listed above. Software that “solve” mathematical problems are routinely applied to problems of real-world concern, thus producing highly significant financial and resource savings, e.g., by minimizing fuel by optimizing delivery routes; by minimizing energy consumption by optimizing wind-farm/generator placement; by minimizing the time or cost required to complete a set of tasks; by optimizing personnel scheduling and tasks assignment. All these optimizations pay off handsomely with benefices for both users and providers.
Clearly, the effectiveness of this approach, as well as its primary justification, derives from the existence of highly composite communities of practice, where needs of mutual skills can be intertwined in a virtuous cycle of supply and demand, and where the availability of algorithmic optimizations can make incremental and yet significant improvements to initial solutions. A case in point is given by the community of evolutionary robotics, which pioneered the use of meta-heuristics such as genetic algorithms and stigmergic methodologies inspired by insects, as well as of machine learning, to progressively refine initial designs of robotic architectures. In this context, initial hardware designs with basic software capabilities are evolved using meta-heuristics and machine learning. Therefore, the supply/demand pattern typically involves hardware experts and design engineers on the demand side and machine learning and meta-heuristics people on the supply side, hence fitting well with our approach.
To fulfil this goal, our COBRA platform leverages the blockchain to structure a competitive marketplace supporting the following key features: (1) registration on the blockchain of the effective superiority of an algorithm or a solution, with consequent entitlement to automatically generated and unequivocal royalties both for game participants and for game owners, that is, the company administering the marketplace; (2) certified algorithms and solutions – each algorithm and solution are certified to belong to a provider and to resolve a given problem; (3) facilitated registration and re-use of both open-source and proprietary algorithms and solutions; (4) payment through cryptocurrency coins which can acquire value on the cryptocurrency market and be exchanged even outside their primary use contexts in the scope of the marketplace.
Thus, COBRA is implemented as a public decentralized database that stores problem definitions, algorithms, and proposed solutions up to a certain point in time; marketplace participants are people who can contribute by posting their own algorithms and solutions for a given computational problem to address it concurrently and share them with others upon payment.
A cryptographic private-public key pair is assigned to each user joining the community to edit the database, or to post a solution, or to update an existing one. Each entry in the database can be edited only by its creator, who is identified by her public key. Public key is used to sign (encipher) the solution to avoid its free re-use. In this way, only the owner can decipher it with her private key and see in clear the solution or edit it. When the owner of a solution receives the payment for the solution after having sold it, the private key is used to decipher the solution and make it available to the buyer.
A solution posted as open-source is not enciphered. In much the same way, the creator of a solution or an algorithm maintains the ownership over them. Hence, the marketplace puts in competition people to find the best solution of a given problem so as to gain rewards and reputation as well as money by selling their own solutions; at the same time, by maintaining a store of open-source solutions, they cooperate and speed up the research for optimizations. This pattern of cooperative competition is known as coopetition, thought to be a good business practice among businesses as it can lead to the expansion of the market and the formation of new business relationships.
COBRA is currently implemented on a minimal blockchain for testing and refinement purposes. The release of an alpha version on a major public blockchain is forthcoming, which will be followed by a strong communication effort in order to involve the largest number of relevant communities of practice.
Stefano Dalla Palma, Damian Andrew Tamburri, Remo Pareschi, Carmine Cerrone, Willem-Jan van den Heuvel (2018) Business-Savvy Blockchains with Gamiﬁcation: A Framework for Collaborative Problem-Solving. EAI Endorsed Transactions on Serious Games.