Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Halo 3 is for Children

[All emphasis added.]

Can the PlayStation 3 aid cancer research?
An experimental science project reaches epic proportions courtesy of Sony's powerful processor.
By Ben Silverman
14 May 2007

While gamers endlessly bicker about which system will come out on top of the console war, a group of inventive scientists at Stanford University are concerned with a very different kind of battle - the fight against incurable diseases.

The university's Folding@home project focuses on protein folding, a chemical process that may hold the keys to unlocking the mysteries of diseases like Alzheimer's, Cystic Fibrosis, Hodgkin's and various other cancers. The team has created a program that simulates the nearly infinite number of ways proteins can fold, a system that requires a massive amount of computational power.

Instead of taxing resources by building a battalion of supercomputers to crunch the data, the Folding@home team decided to tap into the vast quantity of lonely home computers in the wild. And it worked -- since the program's inception in October of 2000, hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks have lent their computers' unused processing power to the project, effectively creating one of the largest distributed computing networks in the world.

But once kindhearted PS3 owners got involved, the numbers went from solid to staggering. Folding@home was tucked into a recent PS3 firmware update as a small icon found in the Network section of the console's front end, allowing users to willingly join the program in a few quick clicks. It has since blossomed, with over 250,000 registered PS3 owners donating enormous amounts of spare power in the name of philanthropic science.

"The PS3 turnout has been amazing, greatly exceeding our expectations and allowing us to push our work dramatically forward," said Folding@home lead Vijay Pande.

"Thanks to PS3, we have performed simulations in the first few weeks that would normally take us more than a year to calculate. We are now gearing up for new simulations that will continue our current studies of Alzheimer's and other diseases."

How significant is the sudden rise in computing power? In roughly one month, PS3s alone have more than doubled the output of all other operating systems combined, pushing the project towards achieving an unheard of petaflop of processing power. That's burlier than the world's fastest supercomputer.

Though much of Folding@home's PS3 success can be attributed to its ease of use -- the program can be set to run in the middle of the night, folding proteins while you snooze -- it's also tailored to appeal to the gamer mindset. Users can easily join "teams" of folders and watch as they rise or fall in the official rankings. A snazzy graphical interface shows the protein folding process itself in real-time; users can toggle between the traditional 'spheres and sticks' chemistry class model or a more organic (and somewhat creepy) fluid representation. You can even scan the globe for other PS3 folders denoted as tiny yellow lights.

Sony isn't the only one interested in lending some helping RAM. Microsoft spokesman Peter Moore has come out publicly in support of the program, though the Folding@home crew is skeptical that the Xbox 360 can handle the data as quickly as the PS3. Those are fightin' words, to be sure, but for once, the two companies are fighting on the same side.


Blogger Bret said...

The Sony CELL processor in the PS3 is very effective for gaming - and robotics. We're trying to decide whether or not to bet on this horse as we're wondering what its staying power in the market will be. Intel's processors will be around for a long time, we're less sure about the CELL.

October 09, 2007 11:50 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

But Sony isn't going to go away anytime soon, and their gaming division is very successful...

October 09, 2007 12:49 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

But that doesn't mean that Sony will continue to use the CELL, nor does it mean that the CELL will continue to advance.

We bet on the PowerPC w/AltiVec technology (a cousin of the CELL) for the robot vacuum cleaner, but they just haven't kept up with Intel and AMD in terms of price/performance so I'm rather regretting it now. The CELL has much better price and performance for my applications now. The question is will its benefit erode (like the PowerPC) over the next few years.

Note that Apple also bet on the PowerPC but gave up its bet as well and switched to Intel.

October 09, 2007 1:41 PM  
Blogger Ali said...

Well, at least it's being put to use for something.

Other than being used as an occasional BluRay player, my brother's PS3 functions as a dust-collector.

October 09, 2007 10:48 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I had to laugh.

October 11, 2007 5:14 PM  

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