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Louise Bennet
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The University of Melbourne is one of four teams worldwide awarded a share of more than US$100 million in funding from the US Government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), in what may be one of the largest-ever research efforts aimed at improving human reasoning.

The University of Melbourne’s multidisciplinary team, SWARM (Smartly-assembled Wiki-style Argument Marshalling), has been allocated up to US$19 million to develop and road-test research into crowdsourcing intelligence analysis to leverage people’s ability to produce and evaluate reasoning.

Critical thinking and reasoning expert, Melbourne Enterprise Fellow Timothy van Gelder from the School of BioSciences (Faculty of Science), says the initiative is primarily focused on developing a system to help intelligence analysis, but team’s platform could also help improve reasoning in the public arena.

“We believe we can build a better tool for intelligence analysts if we can find something that would work even in the public domain, dealing with hotly contested issues such as climate change,” he says.

The University of Melbourne and Monash University are the only Australian awardees with the remaining two teams coming from New York’s Syracuse University and Virginia’s George Mason University.

SWARM project co-lead, Associate Professor Fiona Fidler, a joint appointment from the School of Historical and Philosophical Sciences (Faculty of Arts) and BioSciences, says our thinking is easily hampered by our own biases, such as the tendency to only believe or seek out evidence that support our views.

“It is a problem that is compounded by the Internet and social media. People can easily surround themselves with information that reinforces their own biases,” she says.

“People are dealing with arguments where the sources are unclear or suspect, and where language is vague. When someone says something is “probable” what does that actually mean? Does it mean there is a 50 per cent chance of it happening or an 80 per cent chance?”

Dr Richard de Rozario from the School of BioSciences, who is responsible for the technical side of the platform development and is also co-leader, says while the Internet has made information more accessible, people still need to be able to make sense of it.

“We have Big Data, but we don’t have Big Sense.  That is what we are trying to find, a way to move towards Big Sense, and one way of doing that it to find the ingredients for helping us reason as a crowd,” he says.

The SWARM platform is to be delivered on the Cloud by the Melbourne eResearch Group under the leadership of Professor Richard Sinnott from the Melbourne School of Engineering.

A pilot arguwiki is already running on the question of whether Shakespeare really wrote his plays and if not, who.  Another example of the kind of problem they will be tackling is what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared in 2014?

SWARM is currently recruiting volunteers to participate in the project, which would involve participation in prototype forums and face-to-face workshops to help in the design.

SWARM is a research collaboration between the Faculties of Arts, Science and the Melbourne School of Engineering.