April 26, 2007

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Paging Dr. Sony
Game consoles help cure disease
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Perhaps you’ve managed to procure one of those coveted new game systems — a Playstation 3, perhaps, or one of those swanky black Xbox 360 Elite consoles.

Problem is, it’s impossible to play games 24 hours a day, no matter how hard you try, and it’s a shame to leave that beautiful machine just sitting around doing nothing, right?

What if you could use it to help cure cancer? Or search for aliens? I’m not kidding.

Scientists have been getting help from the geek community at large for a number of years now by utilizing distributed computing to analyze raw data. The idea is that the mountains of data collected through direct observation of one kind or another really mean nothing until they’re processed by computers into useful information. Rather than spend meager grants on building supercomputers of their own that, let’s face it, will only be obsolete by the time they’re installed, research labs and universities started offering up programs that let anyone download data packages, process them on their home computers and send them back automatically.

Since then, game systems have gotten not only much more powerful, but more flexible. The first Playstation, the Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo GameCube showed hints of the functionality to come, but they were still pretty focused on reading game discs and not much else. The Xbox was basically a stripped-down PC, and its successor just upped the hardware specs. Same deal with the Playstation 2 and 3. Built-in hard drives and network connections are now standard equipment.

But what really makes the difference is the processor. The Playstation 3 has a Cell processor, which does certain operations way, way faster than any general purpose processor you’d find in a personal computer. A project called Folding@Home took advantage of that power by writing a client application users could download, and Sony put a link directly in its firmware version 1.6. Because the Playstation 3 is still optimized for playing games, it can’t do all the different kinds of analysis the project needs, but what it can do, it does really fast.

The project looks at protein folding, the way proteins assemble themselves in living things, to understand how improper folding can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many cancers. Another folding project, called Rosetta@Home, says it’s fighting HIV and malaria as well as cancer and Alzheimer’s. Rumors abound that an Xbox 360 client is just around the corner, but Microsoft’s skittishness and the Xbox’s tendency to overheat when left on too long have made it just a rumor for now.

As for searching for aliens, the mother of all popular distributed computing projects, SETI@Home has no official client for a game system. But some folks have gotten the program, which analyzes radio activity collected from arrays looking for non-natural, extra-terrestrial signals, running on Playstation 3 units they’ve hacked to run Linux.

Now, Sony has been approached by private companies to run distributed computing projects for them. Research and development makes up a significant portion of costs for many companies, so tapping into a network of supercomputers could be well worth the effort for them. Rather than the shiny feeling of helping a good cause, gamers on a break could earn credits toward free stuff. Which would seem cool and stuff if only we weren’t taking resources away from, you know, people with cancer.



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