Feeds

Human hive-mind game whups computer boffinry ass

Science glory for 57,000 protein-origami Tetris players

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Most Reg readers are familiar with the idea of ordinary laypersons contributing computer time to academic research, in distributed computing projects such as SETI@Home. But it turns out that in some kinds of science, human brainpower - not that of trained boffins, but everyday people - can be a much more valuable resource, and can be contributed simply by playing online games.

This insight comes courtesy of a game called Foldit, described as "a game a bit reminiscent of Tetris", in which players fold protein molecules - see the vid above. Proteins being the building blocks of life itself, they are very important to science - but their complex 3D structure is hard to analyse and, it now turns out, human brains can open up a can of whup-ass on the many powerful supercomputers - and distributed clusters - at work in this field.

"People in the scientific community have known about Foldit for a while, and everybody thought it was a great idea, but the really fundamental question in most scientists' minds was 'What can it produce in terms of results? Is there any evidence that it's doing something useful?'" says computer science and engineering prof Zoran Popović.

Popović, his colleagues in academia, and tens of thousands of Foldit players have now provided that evidence in the form of a new study published in hefty boffinry mag Nature. Apparently there was some trouble with getting the necessary 57,000+ author names onto the article headers.

"We had to talk to the Nature editors a bit about getting that in there," says computing PhD student Seth Cooper, who also worked on the project. For now, the actual abstract page merely says "Foldit players".

According to the researchers, humans were able to beat computers in protein problems calling for "intuitive leaps or major shifts in strategy".

"It's a new kind of collective intelligence, as opposed to individual intelligence, that we want to study," according to Popović. "We're opening eyes in terms of how people think about human intelligence and group intelligence, and what the possibilities are when you get huge numbers of people together to solve a very hard problem.”

The Foldit human hive-mind worked in cooperation with a distributed-contributed computing project, Rosetta@home. Boffins hope that by analysing Foldit players' success, they may be able to teach Rosetta how to perform the same tricks.

In future, if humanity and its computer assistants can truly master the art of protein origami, it may be possible to produce such things as remedies for flu or other deadly viruses, or even more exotic technologies such as new means of energy generation, cures for cancer etc.

"We're taking the effort that people put into games and channeling that into something productive and useful for humanity," says Cooper. ®

The Power of One Infographic

More from The Register

next story
World Solar Challenge contender claims new speed record
One charge sees Sunswift travel 500kms at over 100 km/h
SMELL YOU LATER, LOSERS – Dumbo tells rats, dogs... humans
Junk in the trunk? That's what people have
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
Bad back? Show some spine and stop popping paracetamol
Study finds common pain-killer doesn't reduce pain or shorten recovery
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
Jurassic squawk: Dinos were Earth's early FEATHERED friends
Boffins research: Ancient dinos may all have had 'potential' fluff
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.