And the Nobel prize for video games goes to…

One of the most interesting practical applications of video game design I’ve come across is FoldIt, a project out of the University of Washington that has game players folding chains of proteins.  It’s actually a lot more awesome than it sounds.

Biochemistry is hard.  Protein molecules grow to extraordinary lengths, and can be folded into a dizzying variety of different shapes following a set of basic rules.  And a single protein can have completely different effects depending upon the way it’s folded.  Fold one protein this way and you have a normal part of the human body; fold it that way and you’ve got mad cow disease.  Unraveling the complicated effects of different protein shapes is an extremely important area of inquiry in modern biochemistry.

A rules-based problem with countless numbers of possible solutions?  On the surface it sounds like a job for SUPERCOMPUTER!  It’s not.  Computers certainly provide vital support through modeling complicated protein structures in real time, but it turns out that they’re not especially good at figuring out how to twist protein chains into new shapes that obey all of the rules.  I recently spoke with Seth Cooper, one of the developers of FoldIt, who told me that left on its own a computer “just kind of flails around, trying random moves to get the pieces to fit together.”  Since there are so many possible combinations to run through, this sort of brute force approach gets results very slowly.

On the other hand, human intuition can recognize patterns and anticipate strategies that are lost on machines.  But human beings come with their own set of problems — in particular, you need to give them a reason to do something.  As Luis Von Ahn pointed out, you can motivate people with material things like money or goods — but inexpensive and intangible things like recognition, praise, and social credit can often be just as effective.

And that’s why the designers of decided to make their human-guided protein folding interface into a video game.  Making progress gets you points, points get you onto leaderboards, and leaderboards give you recognition.  This simple formula has been sufficient to get tens of thousands of players to volunteer their time to a science which, in many cases, they have no background.  Though it must be pointed out that it’s at least conceivable that a by playing this game, you could actually win a Nobel prize.


1 comment so far

  1. cesium62 on

    Although a lot of hard work went into the UI, it just isn’t good enough. The 3d click and drag interface is way too difficult to use: you can’t tell which direction your dragging stuff; you can’t see many of the details you need to optimize (like the red and blue dots that you want to connect together); when you’re trying to build certain 3d structures, you have to carefully freeze things into place and lots of stuff gets dragged around that you don’t want to worry about yet.

    For example, one of the puzzles is for a solved protein, and you just have to drag stuff around to replicate the solved protein. In a reasonable UI, that should take a couple of minutes at most.

    So what the UI needs is a 2d representation of the protein which then allows a user to connect different points on the protein to each other. This can be thought of as a simpler way of implementing rubber bands. The important thing is that the 2d representation should make it very easy to see the red/blue dots that should be connected, and the hydrophobic pieces that should be connected. By being able to easily see the complete structure in detail, the human can bring more intuition to bear on the problem.

    The foldit website is also incredibly slow.

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