Stories from Sustainable Living

You Can Help Save the World’s Coral Reefs by Playing This Game on Your Phone

Kara Jillian Brown

Kara Jillian BrownApril 20, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images / Westend61

Sometimes you just need something to do that’s a bit mindless. A task that’s fun, light-hearted, and doesn’t require much work. NASA created a game that allows you to get that mental break, while also helping scientists classify coral reefs. NeMO-Net, available to download for free on Apple products, is a single-player game created that asks you to paint 3D and 2D images of coral with scientific purpose.

“Our team of NASA scientist at home base is standing by ready to use the classifications you create to teach our supercomputer to classify coral reefs on its own,” says Sylvia Earle, PhD, oceanographer and deep see explorer, in the into video for the game. “Together, we can create a global data set of classified coral reefs.”

You don’t need to be an artist or know anything about coral reefs—all you have to do is highlight the different types of coral in different colors. The game teaches you what to look for. As you explore and classify images of coral reefs and other shallow marine environments from all over the world, you can level up, collect badges, and rate the classifications of other players.

Over the past few years, NASA has used instruments initially created to look at the starts to look below the ocean surface. The instruments have been deployed on expeditions to places like Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa, to collect 3D images of the ocean floor. But the images are pretty low resolution, thanks to issues like refractive distortion from ocean waves. That’s why the supercomputer Pleiades needs a bit of help to identify them. Principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center Ved Chirayath, PhD,  developed the neural network behind the game to build a global coral map.

“NeMO-Net leverages the most powerful force on this planet: not a fancy camera or a supercomputer, but people,” says Dr. Chirayath in a press release. “Anyone, even a first grader, can play this game and sort through these data to help us map one of the most beautiful forms of life we know of.”

Although scientist know that coral reefs are extremely important, Dr. Earle says we still don’t know much about the reefs.

“We’ve mapped more on the surface of the moon and Mars than we have our own ocean,” says Dr. Earle. “But, we can see enough to know that our coral reefs are in danger. Pollution, overfishing, and rising ocean temperatures are ravaging these amazing ecosystems, faster than they’re able to recover.”

The more people who play the NeMO-Net game, the better the supercomputer gets at mapping.

“Once it has been able to accurately classify corals from low-resolution data included in the game, the supercomputer will be able to map out the world’s corals at an unprecedented resolution,” reads the press release. “With that map, scientists will better understand what is happening to corals and find ways to preserve them.”

Dr. Chirayath explains that now is a great time for people to play this game, not just to fill the time, but because these reefs are home to some of the advanced compounds used in drugs. Coral mapping now could lead to future scientific discoveries.

“The antiviral that turned around the HIV epidemic came from a sponge that was in a coral reef, in the ’80s,” Chirayath tells Thrillist. “And it’s just one of many antiviral compounds that have been derived from these systems, as well as chemotherapy drugs, anesthetic drugs—the list goes on.”

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