When I was a grad student, I installed SETI@home on a bunch of lab computers, which served as a screen saver and crunched data from scans of the sky in search of aliens whenever the computer was idle. I thought this was a neat idea, as it tapped into the processing power and electricity being wasted on huge numbers of computers that are left on in labs most of the time. Plus, wouldn’t it be cool if your computer found a viable signal?
An even cooler application of this principle of distributed analysis, crowdsourcing, or whatever-it’s-called, is FoldIt, a video game created by Seth Cooper (University of Washington) and colleagues in which human brains are recruited to solve complex protein-folding challenges. The results are generally very useful because the players are able to solve the 3D structures of proteins that can be challenging even for current computers and software.
I am not surprised that this works, since gamers are adept at figuring out complex puzzles and, especially when there is a competitive aspect, are pretty obsessive about completing challenges. (Cases in point: King of Kong, Chasing Ghosts). The manifestation of this tendency varies. My younger brother likes to do/complete/collect/find everything possible in a game whereas my focus has always been on finishing the game as efficiently as possible — I say screw all the little items that don’t add anything much. Name a game, and someone will have written a walkthrough detailing every single step in the game (i.e., even worse than my brother) and someone else will have figured out a trick to complete any given task rapidly (i.e., even worse than me; check out “speedruns” on Youtube for examples).
It’s a neat use of talent and obsessiveness for the greater protein-folding good. It’s probably also pretty fun.
If you have a subscription, you can read the paper by Cooper et al. (2010) describing FoldIt in Nature.