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. ®