The Image: Neuronal Cell Carpet
A dense carpet of cell bodies and neuritis from neurons traced on eyewire.org (The Game to Map the Brain). These particular neurons are found in the retina of a mouse, and their wiring patterns allow them to relay a complex map of the visual field to the brain by breaking the world up into simple stimuli such as color, direction of motion, and object orientation.
The [Citizen] Scientist(s)
Eyewire is a game to map the brain founded by computational neuroscientist Sebastian Seung who leads the Seung Lab at Princeton University (previously based at MIT). We interviewed Amy Robinson, Executive Director of Eyewire, to get a glimpse into the wild world of crowdsourcing neuroscience research from over 200,000 citizen scientists in 145 countries to date -- through gaming.
Can you provide a bit of background on Eyewire and how you became involved in the initiative?
I met Sebastian Seung at TEDGlobal 2010 when he delivered his TEDTalk. My background is in crowdsourcing and my passion is the brain. Before I joined EyeWire, I was working as Creative Director of a health company in the southeast US. I had been establishing relationships with a number of key neuroscientists - not for work, but for personal curiosity. I deeply desire to know how the brain creates consciousness and in my endeavors I began to realize that we were farther than that goal than I wished, so I decided to intervene and switch things up :) When I discovered two years later, via Twitter of all places, that Sebastian was working on a crowdsourced neuroscience endeavor, I reached out offering to help. From there I ended up volunteering a week of my time to lead a brainstorm session in Palo Alto. While in CA, Sebastian started recruiting me to join EyeWire. It did not require a lot of convincing. 6 months after I sent seb that email, I move to Cambridge as creative director of a computational neuroscience lab at MIT. Wild. 2 years after that, I am Executive Director of EyeWire.
I believe we have the potential to disrupt how science is done and to democratize discovery through crowdsourcing. EyeWire is the first neuroscience citizen science project - much less game - and I am certain we won't be the last!
How have scientists and artists come together to make Eyewire successful in crowdsourcing science and generating relevant neuroscience data?
Design is crucial for EyeWire, as this Fast Company article points out. Citizen science is not just about doing science -- it's about sharing science with the world. Design makes that possible.
I think in years to come we will see increasing influence of design in science labs, especially those interested in engaging the general public.
What are some of the most unexpected questions Eyewire players have asked you via Friday mixers or chats that have made you think differently about the user experience of the game and future possibilities for the platform?
We try to work player feedback into redesign and new features. Still, sometimes we see that features we create are not being used as we imagine.
In May 2014, a paper published in Nature acknowledged members of the Eyewire community as contributors to research conducted in the Seung Lab on a mammalian retina motion detection study. Do you believe this was a defining moment in citizen science?
This is the first time in human history that crowdsourcing has led to a neuroscience discovery. It is definitely a defining moment in citizen science. And it's only the beginning!
Where do you see citizen [neuro]science making the greatest impact in the next 50 years?
I think we'll see new games and new maths for integrating crowd power into consensus (data analysis). Eventually, we won't just analyze data but we'll invite citizen scientists to take part in the entire scientific process. I think one day the most viral games won't just be games -- they will have underlying usefulness as far as analyzing data or improving the state of the gamer.
Do you have any advice for aspiring citizen scientists?
Stay curious. These days, all you need is passion and determination to play a leading role in a field you love -- you don't need a formal background. I have no neuroscience background, yet I joined a neuroscience lab at MIT. Who knows what the future holds - those who are bold and brave will shape it, so best be one of them.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I am extremely honored to be a part of EyeWire and I'm so proud of our community of gamers. They are more than gamers - they are a part of the lab. Our science depends on them. Can't wait to see what the future holds!