Crowdsourcing Science Research by Gaming
EyeWire is a “citizen science” community created to test the hypothesis that the uniqueness of a person, from memories to mental disorders, lies in his or her connectome. Created by the team at MIT’s Seung Lab, EyeWire enlists “citizen scientists” to analyze nanoscale brain images using web browsers and mobile devices. They trace the “wires” of the brain as if it was a 3D jigsaw puzzle consisting of image pieces computed by artificial intelligence. The experience relies on the spectacular graphics and other motivators of video gaming, but allows users to apply their minds to a worthy cause.
EyeWire launched on December 10, 2012, J Day. Over the past several months, members of Sebastian Seung’s lab at MIT had been hard at work making sure EyeWire allows users to accurately contribute to research. During the beta period, an average of 30 to 50 people played EyeWire each day. Collectively, EyeWirers have mapped over 160,000 individual cubes since the beta went live in spring.
J Day kicked off a campaign to map the J cell and its connections. What’s so cool about the J cell? It’s an amazing neuron for several reasons. (from EyeWire’s blog post)
First, the J cell is one of the first types of retinal neuron to be genetically controlled. In 2008, a team of Harvard researchers genetically engineered a mouse so that its J cells became fluorescent. Check out this spectacular image of J cells glowing when illuminated by ultraviolet light (like stuff that glows under black light when you go clubbing). Here’s another one. With this kind of genetic control, scientists can do yet other tricks, which makes experiments on the J cell easier.
Crowdsourcing methodologies leveraging the contributions of citizen scientists connected via the internet have recently proved to be of great value for solving certain scientific challenges involving “big data” analysis that cannot be entirely automated. Another research uses a game called MalariaSpot to test the feasibility of a crowdsourced approach to malaria image analysis. In particular, it investigates whether anonymous volunteers with no prior experience would be able to count malaria parasites in digitized images of thick blood smears by playing a Web-based game.
This research validates the online-gaming approach for crowdsourced counting of malaria parasites in images of thick blood films. This experiment illustrates the potential of the crowdsourced gaming approach for performing routine malaria parasite quantification, and more generally for solving biomedical image analysis problems, with future potential for telediagnosis related to global health challenges. (Check out the original paper here: Crowdsourcing Malaria Parasite Quantification: An Online Game for Analyzing Images of Infected Thick Blood Smears.)
The most well-known example is “Foldit,” which allows players to contribute to biochemistry by folding and designing proteins. Two years ago, FoldIt made headlines, lots of them, when players of the online protein-folding video game took three weeks to solve the three dimensional structure of a simian retroviral protein that is used in animal models of HIV, but whose structure had eluded biochemists for more than a decade. Supported by the University of Washington Center for Game Science, the community still has very high traffic.
It’s time to look at gaming with very different perspectives and purposes.