This is truly a scientific breakthrough. Though what has been discovered is pretty darn important – it could help prevent – 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.)
- In 3 Weeks Video Gamers Defeat Biochemical Puzzle That Scientists Couldn’t Solve for Years (singularityhub.com)
- Playing games to fight HIV (boingboing.net)
- Gamers help anti-AIDS drug quest (bbc.co.uk)
- An Epic Win (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)