We are working to make EyeWire even more fun, in the hope of recruiting a large community of "citizen scientists." If each member of the community plays the coloring game a little, we can collectively map the retinal connectome. Community input to the site will also make the AI smarter, because the computer learns to emulate human judgments. This will accelerate the coloring process still further, until we will be ready to search for connectopathies. Philosophers love to ponder the question of whether the brain is complex enough to understand itself. Perhaps not, but maybe our billions of brains interacting with AI will be up to the task!
Cook: What made you think to turn to citizen science? Is it just a form of outreach, or do you really think it will end up having a significant impact on neuroscience?
Seung: We were impressed by the success of Galaxy Zoo in astronomy and FoldIt in molecular biology. Already a few years ago, we were thinking of creating EyeWire, but the required technologies were not yet available or widespread. When delivering 3D images to users, EyeWire works nicely with a 10 Mbps internet connection, a speed that has become common in households only recently. And EyeWire's interactive 3D graphics, rare for a web application, was implemented using WebGL. This standard is so new that it requires recent graphics hardware, can be tricky to configure in some older web browsers, and is unsupported by Internet Explorer. We hope that our users will understand that such annoyances come along with being an early adopter, but should disappear as the technologies mature.
EyeWire really excites me because of its potential for combining research, education, and outreach in a truly synergistic way. These activities are generally viewed as separate, and may even be seen as interfering with each other. Researchers may wish to spend more time on education and outreach, yet end up not doing so because they have to focus on research to remain competitive in their specialty. Likewise, educators may be too busy with teaching to do research. But EyeWire creates a situation in which important research goals hinge on the participation of citizen scientists. And learning science by actually doing science may turn out to be more effective than traditional educational methods, or at least complement them nicely.
Cook: Whether the public is helping or not, mapping the connectome will only provide the structure of the neural network, not the signals that the neurons are actually sending. Aren't you just setting yourself up for another, even more daunting project?
Seung: Using new methods of light microscopy, neurophysiologists are now able to image the signals of hundreds or even thousands of individual neurons at the same time, in the brains of living animals. (Compared to microscopy, MRI has the advantage of being applicable to living human brains but blurs 100,000 neurons into a single pixel.) Such studies of neural activity can be followed by electron microscopy to map the connections of the same neurons. Imagine knowing the activity and connectivity of all the neurons in a small chunk of brain. This capability is finally within reach, and is bound to revolutionize neuroscience.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.