Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gamers vs the Machine?

Let's face it, people love to play games. People will ignore work, going to class, maintaining a relationship, even feeding your baby, when faced with an addicting game. But what if we were able to harness that energy by wrapping real 'productive' contributions to society in a fun and digestible format. Imagine if WoW was feeding starving children in Africa! Imagine if for every kill you made in Call of Duty, a disadvantaged child got a toy?

Those with a PS3 might know folding@home, a program which allowed them to use their PS3's idle time to assist with scientific research (protein folding) at Stanford. Folding algorithms take a long time to process, but with folding@home and sourced to the crowd, the total time is dramatically cut down. But science and gaming never worked together. The more you played Uncharted, the less you actually contributed. Might as well not play anything if you wanted to really help out!

Enter FoldIt. Instead of utilizing the collective power  of computers, FoldIt utilizes the collective power of of human ingenuity.

FoldIt is a game freely available over the internet, where the objective, wrapped neatly as a puzzle, is to find the best folded shape of the protein. But these aren't just a simple puzzle, but are real, important proteins actively studied by science. In just a few days, FoldIt players figured out the correct structure of an HIV protein that eluded scientists for decades. Recently, scientists looked at FoldIt player macros, and realized how these solutions were outperforming sections of the algorithms in Stanford's supercomputer! For good reason, many FoldIt players developments have been worked into the newest version of automated folding software. Who would ever thought you could get authorship in a leading scientific journal by playing a video game?

Similarly, the game Phylo is another take on science turned video game. Try to match up similar DNA in a process called Multiple Sequence Alignment - try to figure out the evolutionary relationship in this gene between different organisms, using the least amount of steps! Except replace the nucleotides A, G, C, and T with colors and match them with the least amount of changes. Answers are then entered into the database, and used to optimize their algorithms. I've definitely lost a few evenings to it.

No science knowledge is needed, just a little creativity and a penchant for puzzle games. If there's anything we can learn from this, it's that humans will never lose the war to the robot collective. Sure, my calculator can take the square-root of 99999999 really fast, but will they ever feel joy at bagging Master Chief's crotch into a dead foe's face? Until that day comes, go online and train. Science demands it.

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