EyeWire: Seung Labs Uses Gamers To Map Brain's Branching Neurons
Of the many incredible projects on display at last week's World Science Festival, one of the more intriguing concepts was a neuron-tracing project called EyeWire.
The purpose of EyeWire is to map the human brain. That alone is a fascinating area, and an idea that has gained the support of President Obama, but the truly fascinating part of the EyeWire story is how they're attempting to map neurons: with a video game.
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Rather than a bunch of scientists sitting in a lab looking at neurons on a computer, EyeWire asks online players to participate in a neuron-mapping video game. With an online community of over 60,000 people from 130 countries, according to EyeWire, "citizen neuroscientists" are helping create actual 3D structures of neurons and discovering the neural connections within.
Seung Labs, led by Sebastian Seung from MIT, didn't create this crowd-sourced game simply because it was more fun than traditional research methods. They did it because they think it's the only way to gain this sort of information.
As The Connectivist points out, the public traditionally has little involvement with the world of scientific research. With hundreds of thousands of people willing to contribute data of virtually all kinds, while not harness the public's collective input into scientific research? And that's exactly what EyeWire does.
"The only way to get data quicker was to open it up to citizen scientists," Claire O'Connell from EyeWire told The Connectivist.
It may seem surprising, but humans are actually better at performing this kind of visual analysis than artificial intelligence is.
"One thing that humans are doing as they play this game--they're also teaching the artificial intelligence to become smarter," Seung said.
The game actually involves mapping the retina, not the brain. Eventually the goal is to map the brain itself, but just the retina is a challenging enough project as it is.
To play EyeWire, the user is guided though a tutorial with instructions on how to play the game, which is essentially a coloring book featuring a cube of neurons. If that sounds easy, just try to get past the tutorial. It takes some patience to figure out what's going on, but this is, after all, scientific research, not a Berenstain Bears coloring book. So perhaps it should be a little hard.
"It looks like a three-dimensional coloring book," Seung told NPR. "Your job is just to stay between the lines, which are the boundaries of a neuron, and follow the branch of a neuron through that cube."
The game starts with a partially mapped neuron trace. This is where the artificial intelligence has gotten stuck, and where the player is to do what the computer cannot. After a player figures out how to branch together neurons with the assistance of 2D and 3D maps, the results are compared with that of others who have attempted the same map. At that point, the artificial intelligence is able to choose the best map.
If you take a crack at EyeWire and become frustrated, know that the founder himself realizes the game is fairly difficult.
"It actually takes many hours of training to be able to color reliably between those lines," Seung added.
But there are hours devoted to advancing science. And that ought to feel good.
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