Albert Lin is hunting for Genghis Khan. Legend has it that Khan, the ruthless conqueror who was the first emperor of the Mongol Empire, was buried in an unmarked tomb in northern Mongolia about 800 years ago.
But finding said tomb is a task that has eluded scientists for years. Mongolia encompasses more than 600,000 square miles of largely uncharted, rural territory, which makes Lin’s mission an extremely challenging one.
Luckily, the explorer and research scientist at the University of California at San Diego has more than 7,000 people around the world helping with his mission, called the Valley of the Khans Project. The idea is to find the tombs of Genghis Khan and his descendants, and other ancient Mongolian artifacts.
Every time volunteers log in to the site, they are shown some of these images. An online tutorial instructs them on how to look for particular objects and tag them as “roads,” “rivers,” “modern structures” or “ancient structures.” They can zoom in and out and scroll in all directions.
They are also told to simply tag places as “other” if they see something peculiar. This is the sort of vague judgment that humans can perform but that computers cannot, Lin said.
“What a computer can’t do is look for ‘weird things,’ but when you ask a human brain, you don’t have to tell it what ‘weird’ is; we know,” Lin said.
Last summer, Lin and his colleagues were in Mongolia inspecting the places that had been tagged by the online volunteers. Anytime there was a cluster of tags marked as “ancient structure” or “other,” they would note the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, grab their GPS devices and scope it out.
Sometimes online volunteers led the explorers to disappointing finds, such as a herd of sheep on a satellite photo that looked like an ancient structure. But there were also some remarkable ones, such as the discovery of 3,000-year-old Bronze Age tombs, remnants of large cities and ancient monoliths hidden in the region’s vast, grassy steppe.
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