Recently the media have been set aflutter over a video game for smartphones called Play to Cure, a simple space arcade game notable for the fact that while you play, you send valuable information for cancer research. It may at first seem a bit difficult to understand exactly how that happens, but in fact it’s nothing out of this world: distributed computing has actually been used for many years now.
When it comes to doing wide-ranging scientific studies, the volume of IT calculations that must be done for a genetic analysis or a space study can be expensive (and time-consuming), even for a supercomputer. To ease this task, distributed computing proposes the division of these big calculations into small sub-problems so that they can be solved by several low-power computers simultaneously. Now, imagine that all these small potential calculating systems correspond to millions of users connected to the Internet. There you go—there’s your market.
Several projects have appeared recently allowing you to make the calculating power of your own computer available to science. The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) is a service developed by UC Berkeley that, once you’ve installed it on your PC, can make calculations in the background and periodically send them to a study that you’ve previously selected from an enormous list of current projects. Although it sounds like science fiction, from your decrepit old laptop or desktop you can help reveal the mysteries of an incurable disease or calculate the position of a recently discovered star.
The next step when it comes to stirring interest in distributed computing is clearly the need to offer some sort of interesting attraction to users who altruistically make their computers available to science. Foldit is a “game” developed by the University of Washington in which you join in on the search for a cure of AIDS by working on a particular piece of a study: deciphering the molecular structure of an enzyme produced by some primates that is fundamental to the propagation of the virus. The game gives you puzzles where you have to unfold strands of DNA, transforming small genetic problems into simple entertainment to exercise the mind.
This interesting world has again captured the public’s attention following the presentation of the aforementioned Play to Cure by the research group Cancer Research UK. In this free game for iOS and Android, you fly through space while crossing control points and destroying asteroids. In fact, the route traced by your spaceship is genetic information obtained from cancerous DNA strands. During the game you can select different routes that translate into new patterns of analysis for this material.
The so-called Element Alpha is the “bonus” in the game: a material you collect that you can use to upgrade your ship, and the lack of which indicates genetic problems in the chromosomes of the samples under study. When players discover the best possible route to collect the most Element Alpha, they are creating valuable material that is later sent through the app for further study.