Cosmography Technology

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.)

4 replies on “Harnessing The Hive Mind”

I’m annoyed by this story.

“Online Gamers save the world!”. It’s the teenage fantasy of every dorky basement-dwelling, pimple-faced, CounterStrike-playing slacker. And I should know, I’ve been one, except for the basement. In one simple stroke, their status as unproductive members of society is reversed into one of socially redeemed heroes-of-the-day.

Isn’t technology miraculous? What do we even need these fool scientists and their long hoity-toity educations for? Just make a game out of it, and the common man will solve it using nothing but his common sense. No need for silly academics!

Except that it’s, of course, not true. Calling FoldIt a game is nice, but not entirely right. It’s a crowd-sourced science puzzle, that had a competitive element. You might call that a game, but then you miss the point. Not every minute that everyone spent on FoldIt was worth it. It’s not remotely the Angry Birds equivalent of solving biochemical molecular puzzles.

The ‘players’? Academically-inclined, well-educated. Usually with a background or at least a high interest in molecular chemistry. They might not have known all there is to know about folding proteins when they started, but they sure were willing to learn.

One pretense that’s been held up, is that the participants (‘players’) were just having fun. They were playing their game, and unknowingly, they were saving the world. Except that that pretense is not true. They knew they were folding a protein. From what I’ve gathered, it was a pretty collaborative effort as well. This was not Desoxyribose Deathmatch. People discussed, offered solutions, helped eachother. All-in-all, it was a crowdsourced event. There was point-scoring, because that kept people fresh. But those are pretty much a side-interest to the fact that people liked folding proteins to begin with.

It’s a wonderful achievement. Like the Wikipedia, it shows that crowd-sourcing can work. And perhaps it shows how introducing some competitive elements can make crowd-sourcing work better. But your average XBox-playing yokel has not suddenly turned into a scientific resource.

I have a hard enough time folding laundry. Once they find a use for aiming at and clicking upon waves upon waves of 3D aliens… I’m there!

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