I recently produced an interview on how some scientists are being helped in their research by thousands of amateurs recruited via the internet. This process is called crowdsourcing, and you can watch our interview about it above. As I was researching the topic, I spent some time on a crowdsourcing website called EyeWire.
The EyeWire site was launched by Sebastian Seung's computational neuroscience lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this past December. EyeWire participants help map the 3D structure of neurons in the human retina. It’s part of a huge endeavour known as the Human Connectome Project, which aims to create a map of all the connections between cells in the brain.
If you’re a fan of the band Muse, you may know that the cover of their latest album, "The 2nd Law," is a human connectome image that was selected to illustrate the complexity of the brain’s neural wiring.
The graphical interface on EyeWire is very sophisticated, but I found it quite easy to use once I’d made my way through the tutorial process. But one of the most intriguing aspects of the site for me was the fact that the work of mapping neurons has been turned into a game. As I rotated the 3D cube in which I observed a portion of a neuron, which had been mapped by a computer, my goal was to add bits of neuron that the computer had missed. With each correct addition I scored points and, once I submitted my completed map, I saw how well I had scored.
I managed to amass only 160 points with my first neuron map. But considering that the best "players" were racking up not millions but mere thousands of points that day, I didn’t feel too incompetent.
However, it did make me wonder about what the gaming aspect of the site added, or subtracted, from the experience of contributing to this scientific project. In the end, the points were irrelevant to me. I wanted to participate because I thought my contributions were helping push science forward. The process was mentally challenging and fun. And I was learning something at the same time. And, heck, I still made it into the top 50.
To learn more about EyeWire, watch the Agenda Plus segment below, in which scientist Chris Lintott speaks to Steve Paikin about the game:
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