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 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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