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Video Games and Cancer Research?

Five or six years ago, one of the hot topics in academic and enterprise computing technology was something called Grid Computing. The concept, which had been in development for years in the academic and research community, was (explained in an over-simplified way) to have the resources of many computers and networks available in a similar fashion to electricity, or water – they’d be distributed, widely available; and available in varying quantities as needed.  The idea was assembling and selling computing power and resources (storage etc.) on demand.

If NASA needed to build a complicated weather model to plan for Space Shuttle launches, or if Pfizer needed to simulate thousands of chemical reactions in the search for a cancer drug, or if a hedge fund wanted to build a complex mathematical model of some esoteric market to manage risk– they’d all be able to buy the resources on a Grid, rather than having to buy and network tens, or hundreds of computers.   By design, computational Grids could allow scientists and companies to process incredibly large amounts of data, or run extremely complex calculations, more quickly and without the expense of a Super Computer. 

At the time, doing consulting work, I was fortunate enough to work a bit with some of the founding developers of Grid technology, and others who were working on Grid projects at the National Center for Supercomputing. I got to speak with them about commercial application of their work.  I learned a lot from them but I’m virtually certain none of them would have foreseen what’s happened in the past year with the Stanford Folding@home project – specifically, its expansion of Grid technologies to video game platforms.

The project (which is sometimes referred to as FAH or F@H) is a grid based project from Stanford designed to build simulations of protein folding, a biologic process that, when gone wrong, is theorized to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, some cancers and other maladies.  FAH has been active since 2000 and as of March 30th, 49 research papers have been published using the projects work.

What’s remarkable is that a good part of the FAH computational power comes from Video games and not idle desktop computers.  In March and April, Sony made upgrades to the firmware on its extremely powerful PS3 platform. The upgrades allows a small piece of software to be downloaded and run when the console is on but not being used.  When that software is run, again, when the games are not being played, the console is able to contribute some of its onboard computing power (From both its central processor “CPU” and its graphics processor “GPU”)to help build the complex amino-acid protein calculations. 

Some reports say the PS3’s have been responsible for as much as 60% of the FAH Grid’s computing power – which is no small feat. In March, peak computing power for the project neared the levels of the most powerful supercomputer presently available. (For tech savy and acronym bingo players: That number is a petaFlop and the network hit 990teraFlops). 

So far, the PS3 is the only high-performance gaming platform contributing but Microsoft’s been under some pressure to join the cause too.  In  a San Jose Mercury blog posting on May 7th, after noting that the XBOX 360 has a larger use base than the PS3,  the head of Interactive Entertainment at Microsoft, Peter Moore noted that “if [Microsoft] believe[s] we can add value to solving a gnarly problem such as the medical problems and the health problems that Folding@home seems to be doing, then we’ll certainly look at that very strongly.”  (the interview can be found here)

Whether Microsoft joins in or not, it’s pretty amazing to think that nascent video game consoles could be helping to cure complex diseases. Chalk that to up to the category of “go figure.”

For those curious, more info about the FAH project can be found at their website here or on Wikipedia here. On the Stanford site, those interested in helping with the research can download a client to allow their computers to contribute to the network (the video game consoles are just a one part, access to individuals (or corporations) unused computing power is also a big contributor and anyone can help. From what I understand, it only runs when the screen saver is active and won’t interfere with your day to day computer usage)

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