TED Conversations

Amy Robinson

EyeWire, MIT, Founder, TEDx Global Music Project


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How might gaming and crowd-sourcing change the future of science?

Jane McGonical recently said that people spend about 3 billion hours each week playing online games. A small but growing fraction of this time comes from citizen scientists, people with little or no scientific background who contribute to real research by playing games. Over 1 million people worldwide participate in projects ranging from protein folding (FoldIt) to wildlife species counts (SnapSerengeti from Zooniverse); they identify new objects in space (NASA) and categorize classical works of music (What's the Score from Zooniverse/Oxford). A wave of new projects are changing how the scientific method happens as we know it.

I am Creative Director of one such project called EyeWire, a game to map the brain from Sebastian Seung's Computational Neuroscience Lab at MIT. Together, we're mapping 3D neurons and new networks on a quest to understand how these exquisite cells wire together and process information. Over time, players' collective action trains an advanced artificial intelligence (AI) that will automate image analysis. This AI will help researchers around the world rapidly derive insights from their data. Thus people playing a game today are changing how neuroscientific discoveries will be made in the future. Together, they're pushing the boundaries of knowledge farther, faster.

Such unconventional science inspires me to contemplate the future, socially. If, as Einstein says, "imagination is a preview of life's coming attractions," then we're in for an amazing fusion of scitech and internet games. These tools bring people together for common purpose and build communities around scientific endeavor.

Do you think gaming in science will transform how discoveries are made? Why or why not? What do you think of this approach?

How could we help researchers embrace the idea of crowd-sourcing research? What could scientists learn from the gaming industry?

Finally, are you a citizen scientist? What do you play? Why do you play it?


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    Apr 1 2013: I'm not sure about the connection between the two, its seems a bit of a stretch to correlate imagination and gaming.

    Emulating what has worked throughout history when it comes to creative inventions, one only has to look at the United States as it has raised the standard of living of the world more than any other country in the history of the world through inventions. Flying machines, electricity, radio, automobiles, cell phones, Al Gore invented the internet, the dna helix, nuclear, man on the moon, and of course the thermos.

    The future will be the same as the past the country who most rewards invention will have the most inventions. Where imagination is rewarded not oppressed. Einstein, Tesla, Ford, The Wright Brothers, were some very imaginative dudes that would not have flourished in a socialist regulated country.
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      Apr 1 2013: Gaming involves problem solving; it requires you to gauge your opponent and to anticipate their next move. Video games are no different then any other game in that they involve a set of players, a set of moves, and a series of payoffs for each outcome. Every game requires each player to imagine how their opponent will act and in turn imagine how to counter that action with a winning strategy.

      The advantage to video games over sports or board games is the ability to record and track data. When presented with a problem, individual gamers will take a variety of approaches to try to win the game. If you can record those different approaches across a variety of people you could gain a significant insight into how people solve problems.

      Furthermore if the object of a game was something noble say 'solving world hunger' or 'getting everyone to drive electric cars' and the rules of the game reflected the realities facing those problems, I imagine that gamers would come up a variety of solutions simply by trying to win the game.
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        Apr 1 2013: Great comment!

        FoldIt has an interesting case study here -- they compared their players to software called Rosetta, the best in the world at folding proteins. While initially the software was better, the humans surged ahead when it came to taking shirt tern risks in anticiaption of longer term gains. Meaning that humans would put a protein in a higher energy state (an outcome you do not want) in order to play it into a lower one. Human strategies win in part because they include experimentation and risk taking that the computer is simply not capable of doing.
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          Apr 1 2013: Say what? Did you just say that pursuing possibilities with near-zero potential for knowledge gain (so assessed by sound programming) can be an advantage in problem solving/winning?
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          Apr 2 2013: Absolutely. A near zero potential includes a slim chance of yielding something great!

          'How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?' - Sherlock Holmes
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        Apr 2 2013: Mark

        Good point I did not look at it that way.

        Do you see my point?
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          Apr 4 2013: I see it but I don't agree with it..

          Political arguments have no place in this conversation; they piggyback on ideas and suggest causality when perhaps they shouldn't.

          I hope you'll forgive my brevity but proceeding with any sort of depth could provoke a political debate; such comments would be inappropriate in the context of this forum.
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        Apr 4 2013: You have answered my question. Which is no you do not see my point, clearly indicated by your answer.
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          Apr 4 2013: Seeing a point from somebody else's perspective and agreeing with it are two entirely different things. Your perspective is that unbridled creativity and ingenuity can only be fostered in a capitalist environment. You've inferred that the efficiency of the rewards distributed by an efficient market serve as the ultimate motivation and that countries that adopt this approach will always have a competitive advantage over other nations.

          That's me seeing your point. Now here's me not agreeing with it.

          That has nothing to do with crowd sourcing and gaming changing the future of science. Your point seems to be that you can't correlate games with creativity because Capitalism is better than Socialism. Where I'm from we call that the old switcharoo.

          I'll happily debate the merits of government regulation with you, specifically in terms of regulating the market, just not in this particular forum.
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        Apr 4 2013: Still missing it. Have a nice day.

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