Friday, 23 September 2011

Gamers boldly go where no scientist has gone before

Sarah Lux

Mothers and girlfriends worldwide have long yelled at errant sons and partners for being overly fixated on a video game.

This week, however, a group of gamers and scientists demonstrated that proficiency in World of Warcraft may be worth more than the geek cred it achieves.

Nature Structural & Molecular Biology has published an advance online copy of a paper that explains how enjoyment of and technical skills in playing video games can be harnessed to achieve remarkable outcomes in scientific research.

The scientists, hailing from the US, Poland and the Czech Republic, challenged players of the competitive protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease. Scientists researching antiretroviral AIDS medication had tried and failed for years to map the protein with the requisite level of detail using more conventional scientific means. These particular scientists thought the Foldit gamers might have more success.

The experiment worked. In just three weeks, the gamers succeeded in generating models of sufficient quality to meet the scientists' needs. The result is incredible, and may lead to a significant advancement in AIDS research.

More broadly, considerable attention should be paid to the importance and ingenuity of this collaborative model for research, which harnesses skills possessed by ordinary humans to empower their meaningful contribution to the scientific process.

Foldit, the game in question, describes itself as "a revolutionary new computer game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research". Understanding the structure of a protein is central to working out how to target it with drugs. This process is difficult and elusive, as the Foldit website explains:

The number of different ways even a small protein can fold is astronomical... Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans' puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.
The program builds on the concept behind a predecessor, Stanford University's folding@home, which networks participants' computers to create a supercomputer which works through possible folding patterns. Foldit adds to this concept the intuition and puzzle-solving abilities of human gamers to speed up and improve the results. When directed at particular scientific problems, this amalgamation of human and computer capabilities can achieve significant results, as demonstrated by the AIDS study.

This remarkable use of technology corresponds to a broader trend that has accompanied the increasing dominance of the internet in our lives and interactions. Unprecedented access to information, thanks to the internet, has substantially addressed the information asymmetry that used to mean ordinary people needed access expensive experts to make decisions and achieve certain goals. Almost all of us go to Google as our first port of call on almost every day-to-day question, and what we find includes the opinions, recommendations and warnings of an enormous unnamed audience who can help us solve our problem.

Examples of the trend are infinite. Travel review websites like TripAdvisor let you ask questions of a million strangers you never even knew had travelled to your intended location. Flickr, now with an in-built Creative Commons licensing system, connects you with talented photographers who will licence incredible works for your personal or professional use. And although the countless websites and forums containing basic medical information certainly do not replace the role of physicians, they do make for well informed patients who no longer have to defer all control over their health decisions to clinical experts.

Outsourcing tasks and questions to the millions of people connected to the internet is increasingly acknowledged as a legitimate problem-solving model. Crowdsourcing, the outsourcing of a task to an undefined group of people through an open call, can be arranged informally (for example, by a call for assistance over Facebook) or through companies like InnoCentive, which connect those with a problem (Seekers) with those who have solutions (Solvers), who are rewarded with cash prizes for proposing the right fix. Currently on InnoCentive, a novel idea for the development of glucose-responsive insulin may win you US$100,000, while a photo reflecting "the World in 2012" may result in the award of a $1000 prize. Crowdsourcing provides access to an entire world's worth of experts and eliminates costs of participation. As it is developed and refined as a model for various types of projects, it can only grow in popularity and impact.

Foldit is one of those refinements. Rather than issuing a completely open call, the scientists (essentially, Seekers) identified a particular group (Solvers) possessing skills the scientists lacked, and turned the project into a competitive game to make participation attractive.

While technology is so often lamented and lambasted for harming our relationships – lovers text rather than talk, friends chat online instead of meeting, kids engage in multi-player online role-play rather than kicking around a ball – the internet has a powerful ability to connect people, with substantial personal, professional, societal and now scientific implications.

And just think – if gamers can actually help to cure AIDS, what might be the value of your voice in the crowd?

This article was originally published here on The Punch.

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