On Wednesday night, NOVA ScienceNOW’s season finale showcased emerging technologies. In the three-segment show, there was a lot of David Pogue, The New York Times’ Technology writer, dramatically enthusing over different gadgets. Among the featured were the DARwIn robots playing soccer, the Google Glass and video games that you can control with your mind. Lightly intercut with the techno-gasms was some surface discussion about the ethical implications of these technologies, with MIT professor Sherry Turkle serving as a kind of spokeswoman for these views. While I could have used more of that discussion, it didn’t seem to be the point of the show – so no real complaints. It was an otherwise very engaging show and Pogue is an electric host.
However, with all of that said, by and far the most exciting part of the show actually had little to do with new robot technology and more to do with a concept and technology that has been around for quite some time. The third part of the show was a profile of Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Adrien Treuille. This is a guy who has spent his life being interested in and studying crowds and the behavior patterns of groups, and he sought to apply that interest to help better the world. With a group that includes biochemist David Baker, and computer scientist Zoran Popović, he sought to take advantage of the massive brainpower used by people when gaming. Thus, Foldit was born.
Foldit’s origins date back to the @home distributed computing programs like Rosetta@home, Folding@home and SETI@home. In fact, many of the developers who worked on Rosetta@home also helped developed Foldit.
When installed, the @home distributions use left-over computer processing power to execute its programs. For example, Folding@home would take left-over processing room and examine misfolded proteins. The information was sent back to labs and a person or a group was awarded points for how many proteins their computer(s) examined. The analysis of misfolded proteins helped scientists further their research on Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease and some cancers. The point was to lean on massive public interest in these programs and to bring regular people into the fold, even in the easiest way possible.
Still, playing a game is much more exciting than setting up a passive program to do all the work. Foldit takes the distributed computing idea to a new level. Like Folding@home, the program looks to analyze folded proteins. However, instead of making the computer work, you do the work in the form of solving the mystery in a puzzle format. You’re scored on how well you fold the protein, and the highest scoring folded proteins are analyzed by scientists.
The gamers using Foldit helped AIDS research scientists solve a 15-year-long problem in ten days. According to Dean Praetorius of the Huffington Post, “With an accurate model of this protein, drugs can be created that could potentially help stymie the multiplication of the virus in humans.”