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: Systems have been built to harness unused CPU cycles. SETI@home is a classic example where your computer can do valuable computation when it would otherwise be doing nothing. The examples you mention are essentially the same thing except that instead of CPU cycles it is using human mental processing. Gaming is just a way of framing the usage of these resources. So some problems that require applying human sensory processing to huge data sets can be tackled, but not all of science boils down to this. So as a technique it opens up ways to solve problems that we wouldn't otherwise be able to solve just like high speed computing does, but I don't think it will "transform science".
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      Apr 1 2013: I like the idea of paralleling a CPU to mental processing. One of the taglines of EyeWire is "we need something more powerful than a supercomputer -- you." We rely on humans to make decisions that AI can't. We should call it augmented intelligence.

      Certainly not all science can use a gamified, crowd-sourced method; however, I think that an ever increasing range of scientific endeavors can utilize power the crowd approaches to accelerate research. Data analysis is a hurdle almost all researchers face and one that is well-tailored to citizen science.

      As researchers become more apt and innovative through crowd sourcing, I think they will come up with ever novel applications and unique usages -- that's why I think it will transform science. If you asked most professors just five years ago how they would involve the general public in their research, most would have said they wouldn't. Today, many still hold that opinion. I think in the future, few will resist this symbiotic form of scientific discovery.

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