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 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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