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?

  • Apr 4 2013: We recently hosted a one-day event on the social power of video games here at the University of Victoria:

    One of the projects featured was "Digital Fishers", which uses gamification and crowd-sourcing to get citizen scientists to watch and annotate 15 second clips of footage from undersea cameras & then help scientists better analyze the data and know which footage to focus on:

    Watching the video feed (although not playing the game), a 14-year-old aspiring oceanographer from the Ukraine made a discovery that made headlines from his computer:
  • 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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    Apr 2 2013: I’m an old gamer and although I’m not a citizen-scientist, I consider myself a citizen-historian.
    That is to say I’m part of the crowd-source-community, and it has me going on quest and collaborating with other players. Not only for my own enrichment but also for the good of others, just wish they making it have more a game feel.

    I’m both impressed and disappointed by the current selection of crowd-source-games.
    The reasons for being impressed in clear, so I’ll say where I hope for improvement.
    *unlike computers, humans are great at transcribing old documents and yet I don’t see it in gaming. We have world-search gaming apps, why not transcription-gaming apps.
    *MMORPGs often have mini-games in them and think crowd-sourcing-science games would be great for them.
    *The gaming industry employs all types of employee, artist, programmers, actors, script writers, orchestras, conductors, etc. to improve the gaming experience. So I think they would love and pay to work with scientist to add the feeling of being productive and part of something bigger as part of the experience.
    *for my android apps search I would love to see “citizen-scientist games” as a category.
  • Apr 2 2013: For me, one of the most interesting things about this idea is that it educates people. Since one of the difficulties that a knowledge based society faces is educating its citizens, an idea like this would seem to have great social value.

    I think this is where the benefit to science lies. The more educated people are about science (etc.), the more they will participate in such games, and the more momentum scientific discovery will gather. If important discoveries are made only after a critical mass in a certain body of knowledge causes the prevailing theories to become more and more untenable (see Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution), I think crowdsourcing (through gaming) will bring us to this point more quickly.

    Ideally, science would gain enough momentum to move from paradigm to paradigm quickly enough to acquire a really smooth historical development and a really imaginative and creative scientific atmosphere. I do believe we are getting there.
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    Apr 1 2013: Time wil come that patients are in the position to actually design the needed research THEY think that's needed. As An academic Medical Center we've set up a project for that that has been written about by the Society of Participatory Medicine : Crowdsourcing idea's, crowdfunding the money for the research and selecting the researchers themselves.
    Read more about it on :
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    Apr 1 2013: This reminds me at first glance of how universities have long offered students and community the opportunity to be subjects in faculty research through study pools where people can sign up to participate in experiments in behavioral science or health. I can see that the analysis of data from online gaming and other online behaviors might be seen as a natural expansion of that.
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      Apr 1 2013: Right! What if we could layer the interface of a viral, addicting game, like Angry Birds of Fruit Ninja, over scientific data analysis? Game changer :)
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    Apr 1 2013: I think that those who like gaming are a little bit prepared fo to, somehow, face certain challenges of research tasks. It is not always necessarily so, but it helps.
    Sometimes the intensity of a concrete challenge presented by a game, is not different from that shown in a question of a scientific problem.
    I'm not a scientist, but a lawyer, but I do love Science.
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    Apr 7 2013: back to the original question "How might gaming and crowd-sourcing change the future of science?"

    *It is clear that crowd-source-gaming is expediting to the long “trial and error” process of science.
    * The possibilities of crowd-source for the data collection process are great, and adding a gaming aspect to the process could only enhance it.
    *in the mental health sciences gaming it become as much a tool for treatment and a tool for research.
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    Apr 7 2013: Instead of an “android apps search for “citizen-scientist games” as a category" I’m now thinking a category for “Productive” gaming would be best, with “for science” being one of the sub-categories.
    Unlike other forms of entertainment and storytelling gaming is growing-up, and becoming productive as well as more entertaining.
    Music, TV and movies are not only, not becoming productive; they are hurting society by commonly focusing sex and drugs, or about the good old days of drugs and sex. Personally I prefer a productive-workout over a gym or sport workout, for example today I’m doing a land/hardscaping workout.
    In productive gaming I see subcategories like;
    Mental health – with games for self-esteem, memory, returning vets, mental disabilities, brain exercises, etc.
    Physical health – with dance games only being the start of it.
    Education – with everything from basic math games to advance science and a large variety of simulation games from city planning to operate an airplane.
    Science education, research, simulation, data-collection, gaming has just started, and its future looks great.
    Imagine a MMORPG in a Virtual Reality were you operate an undersea robot, and you get points for killing invasive species and helping endanger species or building coral reefs. And if you get to a set level you can control I real life undersea robot.

    Games are a lot more than an interactive means of telling a story.
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    Apr 7 2013: If you want to stay with a military theme, instead of citizen-scientists, I thing they are more reservist-scientists. As opposed to the full time scientists that range from privates to navel seals.
    Amateur astronomers are not considered citizen-scientist, just because astronomy is a hobby and not a full time carrier.

    Personally I think saying gaming/gamers-for-science would be the best term, but i going one better in my next post.
  • Apr 7 2013: Its maybe unrelated but I think that more than anything, Online games allow us to experience a world from a neutral perspective and that perspective is really valuable for looking at modern society.

    More related to Citizen science: The next generation of games is Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, depending on their availability:

    Augmented Reality: AR will allow us to layer game property over any activity we do, even science, which means that mundane people might have more incentive to engage in activities such as Bird-watching, Plant-finding or even Geology,
    Since I like Birds : Lets take Bird-watching as example, lets say you have an AR application that creates a virtual Pet version of a bird you sighted and photographed and uploaded using your AR glasses, to maintain balance and fun different users will have to sight different birds in the wild to get more pets that exist in 'AR space'.

    Virtual Reality: VR + Robotic Fish allows us to explore the oceans like never before and if the technology will have the same availability as Hobby Aircrafts it means that many more people can assist in live ocean research as part of all sorts of games from fetch quests to sighting illegal fishing boats and so on..
    (technically I think stuff like that probably exists or can exist already and I just realized this is not exactly Virtual Reality even if it uses the same technology)
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    Apr 6 2013: The Boundary Institute uses online games to do physics research.

    "Boundary Institute is a nonprofit scientific research organization dedicated to the advancement of 21st-Century science. We are currently pursuing two major research themes, one concerning the foundations of physics, the other the foundations of mathematics and computer science. "
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    Apr 6 2013: My post seems to have been deleted. Glitch in the system this time? I wasn't given a notification.
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    Apr 6 2013: I'd just like to thank Kate Blake for giving my post a thumbs up. It's too bad TED deleted it without any rational explanation as to what was inappropriate in regards to linking to a website currently using games to gather data.
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    Apr 6 2013: For clarification on my previous comment:
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    Apr 6 2013: I just posted a relevant comment about an organization using crowd-sourcing and video games to do research. TED deemed that comment inappropriate. Could someone please explain what if inappropriate about that post? Are we not allowed to give specific examples of actual research here?
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    Apr 6 2013: I think crowd-sourcing is going to open up new areas of inquiry that fall through the cracks of what is normally funded though traditional means such as business funding or NSERC grants. It could also be used to make up for short-falls in research dollars due to changes in how government grants are currently being awarded.

    In Canada, changes to NSERC (National Science and Engineering Research Council) grant policies give more weight to research proposals that have potential economic benefits. A proposal that already has some funding from industry is more likely to get approved. That means a proposal to find a better method of locating mineral deposits for the mining industry is more likely to be awarded an NSERC grant than a study into environmental remediation being supported by an environmental group. I think crowd-sourcing would be one way to help provide funding for popular areas of research, such as environmental work, that isn't likely to demonstrate the kind of economic payoff NSERC now seems to be demanding of science these days.
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    Apr 6 2013: I believe it has been long known that 'insight' is independent of 'knowledge'. For scientific game producers, and the scientific community, games are an excellent way to harvest mass 'insight', not only 'for free', but also beyond the confines of the limit of the scientific community's experience and knowledge. Games bring joy, which is an excellent motivator for participation. They also bring a subliminal (sic) desire to 'hit it big'. To 'beat the game'. To be the one who 'discovered the cure'. I think it's similar to a 'lottery winner' mentality. I can go down in history as the one who 'found the cure' without having to go to school and study the discipline in a game. So yes, I think gaming is an excellent way to get cooperation towards scientific efforts.
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    Apr 4 2013: I've looked at Amazon's Mechanical Turk service as a model for achieving the same kind of effect without having to come up with the game play aspect of it. You just need a little money. I think if you can bring compelling game play into doing the same kinds of things, you can potentially engage more people, with more energy, and all at no cost. Well, there is the cost of setting up the game play environment and aligning that with the area of scientific research.

    Let me create an imaginary story of the future: When the PlayStation 5 is announced in 2017, we also announce a new weapon to search for new drug therapies to combat disease. The massively multi-user game takes place inside a virtual human body, and it's the crowd of players that take on various roles in a fight against various diseases. You start off as a white blood cell and work your way up to design vaccines. Simulation software pits your vaccine against a virus to see if it works. (That would take a fairly sophisticated model of physics - might require quantum computing.) Other teams could develop antibiotics. Or, teams could develop strengthening agents - all kinds of potential. Will the virtual human survive? If your human survives, you get promoted to level 2 game play where you get reincarnated as a worm and have to work your way up. :)
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      Apr 4 2013: Sorry Robert, but your misunderstanding what science-gaming is all about.
      It is not for teaching the gamers/players; instead the gamers are helping the sciences solve hard problems in a much faster time.

      For example with the game foldit players with no science background were able to reducing the time for protein folding research from years down to a few months.

      Also gaming is not a waste of time, when done right it is a great mental exercise for problem solving and memory along with helping self-esteem. There even some research into it improving vision.

      I like to suggest to you, viewing Jane McGonigal TED talk.

      Do you think we should re-purpose the hours spent on sports, books, plays/theaters, music, and time spent at the gym.
      Yes gaming can be improved; currently the gaming industry is work to make them healthier, more entraining and productive, in fact dance games have players exercising and the gaming industry currently working hard on addressing morality in games.
      • Apr 4 2013: Hmmm...Ok, perhaps you are right. I deleted the comments after re-reading the first paragraph. I understood the research to involve people playing electronic games and the researcher would look for patterns in solutions that might have other applications from data collected about their activity. If it is in fact some sort of specific problem solving trial where the best test subjects are gamers, then perhaps some use can come of it.

        I am still depressed by the number of people gaming. The three points you made about positive attributes don not change my opinion about the value of the exercise very much, but I'll concede it may not be a total waste of time.

        My use of the word re-purposing was aimed at the belief that Ms Robinson's research was making some use of the time people spent gaming as I know it, killing zombies and the like. To answer the question you pose about re-purposing other activities, NO! Each of the activities you mention involves a different life enriching experience. Playing computer games in moderation might also be beneficial, but what I see is an addictive behavior that parasitically reduces the potential for development of children and young adults at the very time when they should be accelerating with hard work and diligence into careers that may offer them a chance to achieve their full potential. Playing the same game over and over to beat an earlier score is a waste in my opinion.

        It is good to hear that the gaming industry is taking some steps to change the patterns I see daily in kids and you adults that sit in front of a TV or computer and waste time. It is not healthy nor a productive use of their time.
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    Apr 2 2013: Thanks for this thoughtful comment! I will be compiling some of the best responses for a post on the EyeWire blog, would you mind if I include yours?
  • Apr 2 2013: From my perspective, teaching children to think for themselves, through comparative distinctions, equality through justice, teaching how everything and everyone, depend on everything and everyone else, allowing them the much needed dialog between each other from the first grade, to see the real Age of Enlightenment and prosperity.
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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.