Archive for the ‘Gaming’ Category

VerbCorner – A Window Into The Brain One Thought At A Time

By January 31st, 2014 at 8:56 am | Comment

VerbCorner invites citizen scientists to answer fun questions about words and their meanings to eventually help train computers to understand language.

SciStarter is shuffling science into the language department. Explore the science of words with these citizen science projects!

SentencediagramVerb. Noun. Pronoun. Adjective. Adverb. Preposition. Conjunction. Interjection… If you’re anything like me, the sight of sentence diagrams and parts of speech trigger nightmares of grade school English class and number 2 pencils. But, how do we understand what a word means? As useful as dictionaries are, they only provide other words in their definitions. How do we know when to use one word in a sentence and not another? How do we explain a complex idea to children?

In July 2013, Lily Bui introduced us to VerbCorner, a citizen science project investigating the structure of language and, ultimately, the structure of thought. According to Dr. Hartshorne, the director of MIT’s Games With Words, “Scientists still haven’t worked out the exact meaning of most words… It is [similarly] hard to understand how children come to learn the meanings of words, when we don’t fully understand those meanings ourselves… I can tell you as a former translator, we translate words into meaning and then back into words.” With an infinite number of words and sentence structures, where should linguists begin to understand their meanings?

In VerbCorner, the mammoth task of understanding how language is structured is broken down into smaller, simple tasks. Through wild stories, each task focuses on one of seven unique aspects of verb meaning to elucidate the fundamental building blocks scientists think make up language such as how a verb is used and its relationship to a change of state. To date, over 1500 citizen scientists have provided more than 117,000 judgments on the initial 641 chosen verbs and six aspects of meaning, supplying Dr. Hartshorne and colleagues enough preliminary data to begin understanding how we understand words.

VerbCorner

Are there patterns to how we use verbs? Do we systematically choose words? Or is our word choice completely random and learned in childhood? Regardless of what language you speak, scientists are learning that how we choose words appears to be similar. Scientists have discovered there is a relationship between grammar and meaning which is systematic, and thereby machine learnable. Previous work by Beth Levin lead to the creation of VerbNet, a database where verbs are categorized based on their meaning and usage. Citizen scientists in VerbCorner are helping Dr. Hartshorne’s team verify that verbs with similar descriptions (such as contact or force) are similarly classified and only work in particular grammatical situations.

According to Dr. Hartshorne, “The most interesting things we are learning are about the building blocks of the mind.” In the initial release of VerbCorner, one task tried to understand the building block ‘change of state’ be it physical, mental, or a location. “If ‘change of state’ really was a core component of how we conceptualize the world, it should have been easy to make a task that got at it. We were unable to make such a task. People found it very hard to keep track of all three types of changes.” Dr. Hartshorne explained. Consequently, the initial task was broken down into three new tasks, each focusing on a different aspect of changing state. Suddenly, citizen scientists were able to complete the task. “This suggests that linguists were wrong about ‘change of state’ being a building block of meaning… Rather the building blocks are probably ‘change of physical state’, ‘change of location’, ‘change of mental state’, and possibly more.”

With these results, VerbCorner achieved its first goal – the analysis of the original 641 verbs and six aspects of meaning. But, there is lots of work still to do – another 400 verbs and four additional tasks have recently been added to the project which ultimately plans to cover all the verbs and components of meaning in VerbNet. Linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists plan to use our evolving understand of language and meaning to develop a deeper understanding of human thought as well as fine tune the artificial intelligence programming society is increasingly reliant upon.

Why not flex your mind over language skills at VerbCorner this afternoon?  I’m certain you know more than Siri.


Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with ScienceDebate.org (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.

Mind Control, Concentration, and Color – Understanding the Stroop Effect

By October 10th, 2013 at 11:09 am | Comments (2)

brain lightbulbIn a technologically savvy, hyper-caffeinated, on-the-go society, it can be nearly impossible to ignore distracting information. With flashing lights to deafening sounds, even our smartphones demand attention. How does the mind sort through these conflicting signals, allowing us to concentrate and process only the most important visual cues?

Ignore That! was developed by Dr. Joshua Hartshorne, a post-doctoral fellow in the Computation Cognitive Science group at MIT. Part of the Games with Words project, citizen scientists explore how the brain chooses an appropriate response when faced with conflicting information through a series of simple, 3-minute tasks. After providing your age, gender and handedness, participants identify the color of a word (white or orange), rather than the word itself, then the location (left or right), not direction, of a series of arrows.  According to Dr Hartshorne, “Sometimes, it’s really hard to ignore information even when that information is irrelevant. We’re trying to understand what factors go into this… At what age are people best at ignoring irrelevant, distracting information? What about men vs. women? Or left-handers vs. right-handers?”

Stroop effect

Can you say the color not the word?

Known as the Stroop effect, these selective attention tasks help psychologists understand how the brain evaluates information. In the 1930s, John Ridley Stroop observed that reading words was a lot easier than reciting their color. When a word’s meaning is coupled with distracting information, such as a color, two different regions of the brain are stimulated. The right side automatically decodes letters and reads the word. The left consciously analyzes the color. When you are asked to read the color (active) rather than the word (passive), the brain becomes conflicted – the interfering data of the word slows down your response time; relying on the anterior cingulate to choose the correct visual cue to base your answer on. As one of the most famous experimental psychology experiments of all time, similar tests are used clinically to assess brain damage, dementia, mental illness, and famously the effects of altitude on Everest climbers.

Since its launch in November 2012, nearly 1100 citizen scientists have played Ignore That! exploring how our minds work. “I keep doing Stroop demos on myself because I feel like if I concentrate harder, I should be able to block out the effect.” Dr. Hartshorne reflects. “But it’s impossible. That amount of concentration doesn’t exist. Which itself is a bit of mystery: Is this an example of a failure of evolution or is it actually good that we are distractible in this way?”

Shiny, shiny, look at the shiny… How distractible are you? Can you control your mind to read the colors while blocking out the words?

Want another word game challenge? Try out another one from Games With Words: Verb Corner!

Photos: Public Domain


Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with ScienceDebate.org (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.

Playing Games for the Cure – Become a NanoDoc and Help Bioengineers Design New Nanomedicine

By October 3rd, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Comment


It’s likely you never expected to aid cutting edge cancer research by playing computer games, but the makers of NanoDoc are asking citizen scientists to do just that.   By designing nanoparticles – tiny clusters that are made up of only tens to thousands of atoms – and running simulations of how they interact in the body, players can help expert bioengineers overcome challenges in cancer treatment.

Nanoparticles are promising options for cancer treatment because they can be altered in many ways to target cancer tumors without harming healthy tissue.  For example, nanoparticles can be designed to interact only with cancer cells or engineered to deliver medicine to affected areas of the body. The problem bioengineers face is that there are too many combinations of nanoparticle alterations to physically test how each one will behave in the body. To address this, Prof. Bhatia’s lab at MIT developed NanoDoc as a way to crowdsource simulated solutions.

The lead developer of NanoDoc, Dr. Sabine Hauert, states that the program “lets the crowd do the legwork” of testing the different nanoparticle solutions through a fun and educational simulation game. Participants start by playing through various training scenarios, working on challenges that have been previously solved by experts. At each level, the players learn a new skill, which allows them to alter the simulated nanoparticles in new ways. Hauert describes, “Its really a cool stepwise process. You get little diplomas at every step.”

Following the training, players are ready to address NanoDoc challenges, which are unsolved problems proposed by bioengineers. Hauert notes that the advantage of the going through the training first is that it prepares players to “go ahead and start working on the problem right away without an engineer,” enabling individual participants to make real contributions. The participants’ solutions are evaluated based on their scores in the game, and the highest scores are carefully evaluated for their potential to test with physical systems. More of these challenges will be available in the coming weeks with the release of the new version of NanoDoc, which will allow for any user to submit new challenges.

So start your NanoDoc training today and join in the challenge!  Your high score could lead to tomorrow’s cure.

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Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase, emilyannelewis.com.

Citizen Sort: Who is in that photo?

By September 30th, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Comment

Citizen SortPictures, puzzles, and play. Citizen Sort is a collection of interactive games in which players sort and classify photos of unidentified animals. The project is the brain child of researchers at Syracuse University School of Information. The goal is to enable scientists to use pictures of wildlife from the web to help them study changes in species populations, the health of an ecosystem or the effects of urbanization.

Just as scientists might do, the games teach you to group images based on different physical traits such as an animal’s fin shape, skin coloration, or tail length. By sorting the images into specific trait combinations it is possible to identify an animal’s species.

In Happy Match, players are asked to classify pictures of sting rays, moths or sharks. The game starts with a set of pictures. In each consecutive round, you receive a different trait to sort by. At the end, you learn how many pictures you successfully identified. The more you play the more challenging the sorting. You can challenge friends and family to see who the best sorter is.

Happy Match Sting Rays

Another game, Forgotten Island incorporates image sorting into an interactive puzzle. Players find themselves on an isolated island, confused and disoriented after an unfortunate lab accident. Forced into labor by the island’s malevolent robot, and aided his slightly nicer brother ‘bot, the players must use their image matching skills to solve the mystery of the island.

While it is all fun and games for the player, the Citizen Sort project is an experiment it is own right. The project is a model for how game play and scientific research can be combined to make citizen participation more accessible and inviting. So sharpen up those eyes and get sorting.


Dr. Carolyn Graybeal holds a PhD in neuroscience from Brown University. She is a former National Academies of Science Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellow during which time she worked with the Marian Koshland Science Museum. In addition the intricacies of the human brain, she is interested in the influence of education and mass media in society’s understanding of science.

Fraxinus to Fight Fungus

By September 27th, 2013 at 11:08 am | Comment

Human beings are remarkably capable animals when it comes to pattern recognition. The human ability to quickly and accurately recognize recurrent patterns is a skill that numerous citizen science projects have put to work on large, difficult data sets. Galaxy Zoo uses these skills to assist with the morphological classification of galaxies. Pattern recognition and also spatial reasoning contribute to the success of the protein folding project Foldit. Another project aims to take advantage of these human skills and, like Foldit, does so with a game.

Fraxinus is a game created by The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) to help researchers address ash dieback in the common ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior). Players attempt to match a nucleotide sequence to a reference genome to look for sites of variation. The game was designed for the social media platform Facebook and allows users to play the game as they would any other on the site. However, this game provides more than entertainment. Fraxinus also provides scientists with small pieces of data that can be aggregated to provide a better understanding of the mechanisms that protect some common ash trees while others perish.

With more than 10,000 puzzles to solve in the game there is a significant amount of work for citizen scientists, but already each of these puzzles has been examined, according to a recent report on the game. Now that each puzzle has been looked at, players will begin to “steal” patterns from one another, in an attempt to increase their game score, and at the same time they will help refine sequence patterns, which in-turn provides better quality data for researchers.

You can learn more about the background for the project, including the basic science, and Fraxinus with Dan MacLean, Bioinformatics at Sainsbury Laboratory, here.

Image: news.jic.ac.uk.


Ashley Rose Kelly is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at North Carolina State University. Ashley studies how emerging technologies may be changing science communication. She also teaches scientific and technical writing courses as well as an introductory course on science, technology, and society. You can find Ashley on Twitter as @ashleyrkelly