In a time where fear of government surveillance, abuse of big data, and malicious social networking sites runs rampant, it is easy to forget just how awesome (and genuinely beneficial) hi-tech can be. Much of technology's promise arises not from how much work it can take off our hands, but by how much work it can help us get done; less Rosie the Robot, more T.A.L.O.S. And the fact of the matter is, there are many more innovations being made today in that vein than in any other. This is a very good thing.
One such innovation you might have missed: FoldIt, the protein folding game. Developed by
the University of Washington Center for Game Science in conjunction with the UW Department of Biochemistry, FoldIt presents its users with at 3-Dimensional model of a partially folded protein, and then lets the user try to fold it the rest of the way. The more energetically favorable the final model is, the more points they score. That new model is re-circulated among the community, and the process repeats. And repeats. Until finally – at least by FoldIt standards – the protein's tertiary structure is "solved."
While FoldIt began in 2008 as little more than a joke amongst UW BioChem grads, the competitive bent of human nature soon reared its beautiful head: as of 2012, there were 240,000 players registered on the site.
This is all well and good. But does it WORK? In four words: yes, very much so. In 2011, the structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus protease was solved in a matter of days, a task scientists had been unable to accomplish conventionally for fifteen years (http://bit.ly/Zr1pDi). In 2012, the FoldIt community was able to redesign a Diels-Alderase used commonly in synthetic chemistry by adding 13 amino acids to the backbone, increasing it's reactivity by more than 18 times (the article in Nature: http://bit.ly/1wbTkx6; in Scientific American: http://bit.ly/1sXQhLb). And now, the community has turned its attentions to Ebola: the first Ebola protein puzzle was uploaded six months ago, and work is ongoing.
Computers are better than us in a lot of ways: they're unparalleled in their execution of incredibly complex algorithms at blazing speeds, churning out results much more accurate than humans could ever hope to produce. But humans are creative. Humans are spontaneous. We have intuition, and a brain evolved over millions of years that is arguably the most complex organism in the entire universe. Though in the time it takes us to formulate a single thought a computer might execute a billion operations, each of our thoughts are unfathomably more complex. By harnessing the technology of social networking and gaming to bring together hundreds of thousands of the world's greatest minds to work on a single problem, we integrate computing's massive breadth of thought with humanity's already massive depth of thought – working together, a synergistic meta-android of the mind, our productivity scales exponentially.
Working together, we achieve the impossible. Welcome to the future.