Harnessing The Hive Mind

I think this is a level boss

This is truly a scientific breakthrough. Though what has been discovered is pretty darn important – it could help prevent AIDS – even that pales compared to the significance of how it was discovered. There has never been anything like this.

There have admittedly been things that sound like it. SETI@Home for example was a way people all over the world could contribute to a scientific endeavour – in that case, searching space for signs of intelligent life. All you had to do was download a program that acted like a screensaver, and whenever your computer was not being used it would contribute its processing power to the task of analysing millions of signals picked up by radio telescopes. It was the sort of work that government and universities couldn’t really justify funding, but volunteers were happy to take on.

They call it distributed computing, and the same idea has been brought to bear on other, perhaps more immediate, goals. Folding@home was a project dedicated to discovering how proteins are folded into their countless possible shapes. Why is that important? Because the cells of our bodies work by molecular mechanics, and these are the moving parts. The exact shape of every single piece and how they all fit together is the real nuts-and-bolts of life; understanding it has stupendous implications for medicine and genetics.

These proteins are deceptively simple chains of atoms, but the chemical attractions between the various parts of the chain mean they spontaneously fold themselves into the shape required to perform their function. It’s amazingly subtle and complex, and understanding it requires a lot of analysis. Folding@home has harnessed a spectacular amount of processing power to the task. In 2007, it surpassed all records set by old-fashioned in-a-room machines to become the most powerful computing system every constructed.

For some things though, even that is not enough. Yes, they’re unbeatable for number-crunching, but the problem-solving abilities of even Intel‘s finest are minuscule compared to nature’s most advanced hardware – the human brain. The meaty microprocessor is custom-built for understanding and manipulating real objects in 3D space, ideal talents to bring to bear on this problem. But how can you harness the distributed power of thousands and thousands of brains?

Simple – make it into a game.

Foldit gets the mind focused on solving molecular puzzles by presenting them as puzzles. The hard bit is just getting these molecules represented accurately in 3D graphics. From there you can leave the analysis and ingenuity – as well as the competitiveness and fun – up to human nature. We love this stuff. And nothing in the known universe is better at it.

We should all get the Foldit program. That way the next time you’re caught playing a game on your computer, you can honestly say that it’s not what it looks like, and in fact you are finding a cure for cancer. Or whatever your boss is most scared of.


(Be aware that all versions of this program are still in beta. See site for more details.)

Vatican City Limits

From Roma with love
Ideally, it should be in a hollowed-put volcano

What I hate about the Vatican is their holier-than-thou attitude. It may not pretend that it’s above error, but it continuously insists, to us and to itself, that even if it does on occasion do harm it ultimately achieves a greater good.

Look closely at the logic of that. The more harm the Vatican does therefore – whether it be protecting paedophiles from the law or impeding the prevention of AIDS – the more good it must be doing. The benefit of its existence must outweigh these ephemeral evils. To think otherwise would be to confront a truly appalling vista.

And if the good the church does must inevitably outweigh the bad, then preserving it and its power in the world must surely be worth more than the safety of a child. Or any number of children.

This kind of ruthless logic is what makes religious organisations last for thousands of years while kingdoms and empires rise and fall.

But when an Irish politician unequivocally condemns the actions and the attitude of the Vatican, you know that times are changing. Addressing the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said:

The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.

Couldn’t have put it better myself really. Well maybe stylistically, but the content is spot on. He continued:

. . . a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic . . . as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so . . . excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism . . . that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.

Broadly speaking, he tore them a new one.

Hight time, and popular support is overwhelming. Irish new media publication TheJournal.ie did decide to give space to a priestly apologist for the Catholic church, but I think that was mainly to give the rest of us a target. His point though, if the metaphor is not unfortunate, was that we should not throw the baby of the church’s teachings out with the bathwater of its failings. Society needs a spiritual dimension, and the church has contributed much of practical value too.

I’m not going to argue against the social utility of religion – not today at least. For the moment I’ll accept the assertion that people, some people at least, require or benefit from religion in their lives. The question that still remains however, which I would like to ask this apologist, the Vatican, and every cleric who put the instructions of the Vatican before the safety of children: Why does that religion have to be Catholicism?

There are many other faiths. Heck, there are even many other forms of Christianity. Perhaps people in Ireland who wish to practice a religion should choose one that has sinned less.