Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 22/8/2006 Fancy a next-generation gaming console, but holding back because it's too self-indulgent? Getting excited by the idea of a Sony PS3, but can't see how to justify splurging scarce cash on something that's utterly without redeeming social importance?

Tuesday 22/8/2006

Fancy a next-generation gaming console, but holding back because it's too self-indulgent? Getting excited by the idea of a Sony PS3, but can't see how to justify splurging scarce cash on something that's utterly without redeeming social importance? Family making unreasonable requests to eat and be clothed?

We have the answer. Stop thinking about the PS3 as some dull old box of pixel-bashing chips designed to seduce you with colourful fantasies of power and exploration. Instead, look at the specifications. The Cell processor at the heart of the Sony is in fact a group of high-performance cores that between them can theoretically churn away at a tightly-defined task at up to 100 billion instructions per second. Of course, that sort of peak power could only be obtained doing something highly parallel — which means something scientific or technical. Like protein folding.

Protein folding involves computer models of how proteins — which we know about — fold into their operational configuration, which we don't know about. This involves immense processing: what a protein can do in a microsecond can take a single computer 30 years to calculate. Which is where Folding@Home comes in — a distributed computing project from Stanford University that uses volunteer PCs donating spare time over the Net to get the calculations done in a fraction of the time. In the six years it's been running, it has generated a scad of scientific papers and real results directly relating to nanotechnology, cancer studies and more.

And now they're putting it in the PS3. With just 10,000 connected together over the Internet, they say, they'll have a petaflop of processing power. That's considerably more than the fastest supercomputer on the planet — and as they've already got 200,000 ordinary PCs connected, they have high hopes of getting well past that level.

As they say, "Our goal is to apply this new technology to push Folding@Home into a new level of capabilities, applying our simulations to further study of protein folding and related diseases, including Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington's Disease, and certain forms of cancer. With these computational advances, coupled with new simulation methodologies to harness the new techniques, we will be able to address questions previously considered impossible to tackle computationally, and make even greater impacts on our knowledge of folding and folding-related diseases. "

All this from a games console? No, not a games console. It's a node on the world's most powerful medical research computer, performing indispensable work in an irreplaceable way. You owe it to the world to take part. If you buy a PS3 and hook it up, there will be people walking on the planet in the years to come who'd be dead otherwise.

Point out to your children as they point mutely to their bare feet and rag-clothed, hunger-distended stomachs, that you're doing it to build a better world for them and their children, and that no gain comes without sacrifice. You can also point out that even when it's running full tilt at folding, the PS3 client has enough grunt left over to do some absolutely spiffy educational graphics showing what's going on.

How noble can one person be?

 

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