“I’ve been training myself to write with my left hand,” said Amy Robinson, holding her notebook open.
Is Her Own Best Laboratory
By Charlotte Wilder
The handwriting on the left side looked a little shaky, but it was still small and neat, a slightly juvenile version of the right side’s ordered and measured letters. She’s in the middle of a project to map out her notebooks and visualize the data of her own thoughts and discoveries.
“I’m very into the quantified self,” Robinson said. “When you learn new things, it’s almost impossible to regain the perspective you had before you learned that thing. I want to identify those and see if there are patterns, habits I have before I have breakthroughs. If I understand those patterns maybe I can have more of them.”
Robinson is the director of EyeWire, a computer game that maps the brain. In addition, she’s the founder and director of TEDx Music, the author of a series on neurotechnology and the brain for Scientific American, and a prolific public speaker.
She also never graduated from college.
“There’s a Ben Franklin quote that I live by: ‘If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality.’” Robinson said. “The way that I spend my time … well, time is very precious. It’s limited, and I like to figure out how to create things I wish existed.”
One of the things Robinson found to be a waste of time was school. She left college before finishing her engineering degree because the internship she had wasn’t what she thought it would be. She wanted to make things and change the world, but instead found she was simply carrying out others’ orders.
It didn’t sit well, and she began to wonder if all degrees would lead to work that felt as unfulfilling. So she took more time off.
“I wasn’t planning on leaving indefinitely,” Robinson said. “But I just ended up building shit and never went back.”
Robinson first worked for an ecology company in Alabama—her home state—for two years, restoring streams and wetlands and working on projects to improve water quality. It was during this time that she also got involved with TEDx (the regional version of the TED conference), and started organizing TEDx Alabama.
On top of all this, Robinson was also working as a bartender at a fancy country club.
“I got a lot of people a lot of scotch,” she said.
In order to organize a TEDx conference, you have to go to TED Global. So Robinson took all of her savings and flew to London for the conference.
“I live with a mantra. If I’m torn about a decision that’s high risk, I try to think about whether I’ll look back in five years and regret that I didn’t do it,” she said. “If I would regret it, I should do it. Just say fuck it, and do it. That’s been very helpful.”
It was at TED that Robinson met executives from Shell’s sustainability department and started talking to them about water quality in Nigeria.
“We were talking about what’s going on in the Niger Delta, and while I never went over there, I started to collaborate with a non-profit, and put together this plan for crowdsourced water-quality management.”
Disaster struck when some of the researchers in Africa were taken hostage and held at gunpoint with automatic weapons for 48 hours.
“It was absolutely horrible. And then the project fell apart.” Robinson said. “But it got started, and it got moving. And it made me question, wow, what kind of projects could I put together if I put my mind to it?”
Robinson then joined a healthcare company, where she started getting interested in neuroscience and the brain. It was around that time that she first read an article about EyeWire.
No matter what her job title has been, the common thread that weaves through everything Robinson has done is building communities.
“A collaboration machine is generally how I think about her,” said Will Silversmith, a full stack developer at EyeWire.
EyeWire, which now operates out of the WeWork space near South Station, started out of Professor Sebastian Seung’s lab at MIT (although he has since left the university to work at Princeton).
“It started out as a project in my lab, and basically, we tried to turn neural circuit reconstruction into a game,” Seung said.
Seung wanted to understand the intricacies of how neurons functioned, but there was no way of knowing if the theories he and his colleagues were coming up with were correct, because there was no hard data to back it up.
He started collecting pictures of cells from the inside of mouse retinas. Thousands of pictures. But now he had another problem. Where there was once a lack of data, now there was too much. Mapping the paths of each neuron in the images was labor intensive and took researchers a long time.
“Having data and making insights from data are different things,” Robinson said as she demonstrated the game in the EyeWire offices. “Labs are drowning in an avalanche of data.”
Artificial intelligence (AI) proved helpful, but Seung found he needed human eyes to be able to pinpoint and trace exactly how the intricate dendrites and cell bodies twist and turn through the brain and around each other.
His lab developed an online game that would crowdsource some of the tracing work. The game breaks up the photos of the neurons. The gamers, after they’ve gone through a few levels of training exercises—and with the help of AI—trace the neurons through the photos to make a complete map of the cells.
When she read about EyeWire while working at the healthcare company, Robinson reached out to Seung.
“The game at the time was horrible, so bad, unplayable, slow, confusing,” she said of EyeWire. “So I was like, ‘I think you’re doing an amazing thing, but may I introduce you to designers, animators, people who could help you take this project and make it so that it’s playable and understandable to anyone?”
Seung began to court Robinson to be EyeWire’s creative director. Job offer in hand, she wrote him a bulleted list of all the reasons she wasn’t qualified for the job.
“All of the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve been unqualified to work on,” Robinson said. “But it goes to show that you don’t ever really have to have the preceding qualification to be successful. Sometimes it actually may be better, because you come at a problem with a different perspective from all the people coming at it from the same place. It’s a recipe for innovation.”
“She gets people together to get excited about a common goal and improve the world and improve themselves, ”Seung said. “She really knows how to do it.”
Robinson moved to Cambridge in 2012 to join the EyeWire team and hasn’t looked back.
“I love Boston. It’s extremely intellectually and technically savvy, and I love that,” Robinson said.
In the short few years she’s been in the area, Robinson has improved the game’s user experience.
“I think a lot of what she’s done is try to open up the science in the game and bring it to people by reaching out and doing collaborations across multiple scales,” said Alex Norton, a designer at EyeWire. “She brings people together who would never have had the opportunity to talk. She opens new doorways.
Map the path of a neuron
“I love side projects, I love building things,” Robinson said. “I’m always on the computer writing out documents and plans for my latest side project. You would not find me at a bar. You’d only find me at a bar if there’s a potential for awesome conversations.”
On The Side should be the title of the autobiography that Robinson may someday write. She’s constantly working, whether it’s to move EyeWire forward, to create a data visualization system for all the music she’s collected from TEDx conferences, or to map out her own notebooks.
“It seems to me a lot of people get one-sided, spend all their time on one thing,” she said. “I have a multitude of interests, and I think that’s—at the core—kind of how humans are meant to be. Our brains are not single-sided, singularly-focused things. When we understand a lot about many different aspects, we can think innovatively.”
Robinson is obsessed with data visualization. She believes it’s the future of how we’ll organize information and complex ideas.
“An aspect of EyeWire is trying to create beautiful images and videos, or various kinds of interfacing with artists,” Seung said. “She’s getting those things out there.”
In addition to working with designers and artists to improve the gaming experience for EyeWire, Robinson is working with the Somerville-based company Echo Nest (which works closely with Spotify) to analyze the music she collects from TEDx conferences. She plans to visually map songs according to their inherent characteristics, not just by country of origin or main instrument.
Most weekends Robinson isn’t traveling are reserved for her work on TEDx Music. She spends the time collecting performances, releasing new audio, and working on the visualizations.
Echo Nest’s Tim Ganss thinks her work ethic is dynamite.
“[TEDx] was her own passion project that she and a developer took the initiative to do, to get this music a wider audience,” he said. “Her idea was to peel the music away and look at it in new and interesting ways.”
Robinson has gathered about 600 songs from the performances that take place at TEDx conferences all over the world. Once Echo Nest has analyzed their musical properties, she plans to use data visualization to map the songs.
“Once we’ve extracted the metadata—like valance, mood, energy—we’ll have all these extra attributes associated with performance we can use to visualize,” Robinson said. “I’m so over lists. They’re like the telegraph of how we navigate. It should be as a network.”
“You can’t find what’s not there in a list,” she continued, pointing to a blank spot in an intricate map of dots on her screen. “I’m curious about where remixes and non-traditional songs will exist on the map. The empty spaces, that’s where there’s potential for innovation.”
I was supposed to interview Robinson at the EyeWire offices one February afternoon, but one of the freak snowstorms hit and we had to speak by phone that evening.
“One sec,” she said over the sounds of distant chatter, cutlery clinking against plates, and the low hum of voices in the background. Robinson was placing an order.
“Sorry,” she said, back on the line. “You’ve caught me having my second Irish coffee with this group of Finns I just gave a lecture to.”
The snow couldn’t stop her from taking an Uber to a hotel in South Boston and giving the speech anyway.
And it wasn’t just any group of Finns (who probably weren’t phased by the snow at all); Robinson was meeting with the head of Rubio, the gaming company that makes Angry Birds. She’s been connecting with masters of the video game world to learn how she can make EyeWire an even better experience for players.
When the snow finally relented and I could make it to the EyeWire offices, Robinson greeted me with a bowl of dates she’d brought back from California, where she’d been attending a video game conference.
She sat down at her computer and pointed out the stack of business cards next to her computer. “Those are all the people I have to follow up with,” she said. She then pulled up an animation on her screen stimulating what it would be like if you were to shrink down in size and travel among the dendrites of the mapped out neurons.
“It’s like you’re in an intergalactic nanoboat,” she said. The dendrites of the cell spiraled and swirled, and the camera moved through them.
A version of this video is also available for the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality contraption. I put on one of the goggle-like devices to travel through the cells. It was enough to make me dizzy and simultaneously wish that an intergalactic nanoboat were a real thing.
After I took off the virtual reality device, Robinson logged on to the chat function of EyeWire. She typed, “Hi guys!”
“EyeWire is kind of a game,” Seung said. “But when Amy arrived, she turned it into a community. It’s not always clear; is it a game or a community? It’s more of a community right now. She’s largely responsible for that.”
“Hi Amy :),” replied one of the gamers currently online. Others chimed in, greeting her with various happy emojis. She traded jokes back and forth for a few minutes, then told them she was showing a reporter how the game worked. More happy emojis flooded the conversation.
If you’d asked Robinson 10 years ago, she wouldn’t have expected to end up managing a neuroscience non-profit born out of MIT.
“I was definitely into science when I was in elementary school” she said. “And I was really into it up until middle school. Then I became socially conscious.”
Robinson made the cheerleading team and stopped talking about science in high school.
“As bad as being a cheerleader was for my intellect, it helped me at least have some degree of social mobility,” she said. “I can go to parties and be fine, whereas before, I would’ve freaked out.”
Before she left college, Robinson joined a sorority and embraced the party scene for a while. But ultimately, it wasn’t for her.
“At a certain point, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’” she said. “I felt that I should embrace the things I love, and if that comes at the risk of who I hang out with now, so be it.”
Now, however, the tables have turned. Once school is over, being cool isn’t measured by whether you hang with the in-crowd or not. It’s about the impact you’re making on the world.
If impact determines coolness, Robinson is the prom queen of being a grown-up.
While most researchers run experiments on other subjects, Robinson uses herself. She believes that everything can always be done better and more efficiently, and she proves her theories out using her own records and her own body. She recently got hooked up to motion sensors and practiced yoga in a lab at MIT so they could map out her alignment.
“I’m obsessed with posture,” she said, standing up straight. “I think it can tell us a lot about our circulatory systems, and I have all these theories about what our circulatory systems can do.”
She did admit, however, that it felt a little weird to be hooked up to sensors while wearing yoga clothes and performing poses on a platform in an MIT lab, surrounded by researchers.
That’s the essence of Robinson. There is no limb she won’t go out on—no dendrite she won’t explore—if she thinks it will lead to a breakthrough or greater understanding of the world around her. And she believes fiercely in relaying what she learns and in bringing people together to do so.
“The world makes it possible,” she said. “So we have a responsibility to share what we learn with the world.”