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Computer-game console contributes to science

March 30, 2007 By Duncan Graham-Rowe This article courtesy of Nature News.

PlayStation-3 owners chip in to help research projects.

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Computer-game consoles most commonly associated with killing aliens may soon be used to actually search for them. At the same time, they could also help to cure Alzheimer's disease, carry out climate predictions and malaria epidemiology, and study gravity waves.

The recent launch of a software update for Sony's Internet-enabled PlayStation 3 (PS3) games console has seen more than 50,000 owners sign up to take part in a medical-research project called Folding@home. The success has now led to discussions to make dozens of other such 'distributed computing' projects PS3-friendly.

Such projects are designed to create a virtual supercomputer out of the spare processing power of thousands of personal computers around the world. Using a downloaded screensaver-like program, volunteers are able to help run vast computations whenever their computer is idle.

Created by scientists at Stanford University, in California, the aim of Folding@home is to simulate the way in which different proteins fold, in the hope of bettering our understanding of certain diseases. Last year, Sony offered to lend a hand by helping to develop a version of the program that would run on its forthcoming and extremely powerful new console PS3, says Klaus Hofrichter, director of Sony Computer Entertainment America in Foster City, California.

This was made available to PlayStation users on 15 March; switch on an up-to-date PS3 and it offers you the option to download the newly compatible version of Folding@home.

The total number of 'floating points operations per second' (FLOPS) — a measure of performance - carried out by the participating PS3s is now some 330 Teraflops. That's more than the combined processing power of 276 Teraflops from the nearly 2 million personal computers signed up since Folding@home launched in 2000.

More the merrier

Now other distributed-computing projects are keen to get in on the act. The University of California, Berkeley, which runs a software platform for distributed computing called the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), is currently in negotiations with Sony. They hope to make PlayStation-friendly versions of BOINC and several BOINC-based projects, says David Anderson, who created the platform as well as the very first of these programs, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI@home. Hofrichter confirms that they are in talks.

What makes the PS3 so effective is its powerful cell processor, which makes each console as powerful as 10 average desktop computers. But the real speed comes from seven additional processing units, says Hofrichter. These are high-speed number crunchers, normally used to help simulate the physics underlying a three-dimensional game — such as the gravity that makes a character fall off a ledge. "This is exactly what Folding@home does — it's physics simulation," he says.

Currently the program is only able to run in the foreground, so it is not possible to use the device at the same time, says Hofrichter. Sony is now considering making it a background application, so that it can run while people watch DVDs, listen to music or surf the Internet on the console. But it will never be able to work during game play, which itself uses too much of the processing power. So sadly no one will ever be able to claim they are contributing to science by playing Grand Theft Auto.

In the meantime, the program uses the consoles' powerful graphics to display the proteins being folded, as well as showing a picture of Earth. "You can see in real time where people are, elsewhere in the world, who are contributing on their PS3," says Hofrichter.

There will be difficulties making some of the distributed-computing applications compatible with PS3, says Anderson, although hopefully they'll all be done eventually.

What of other games consoles such as Xbox 360? Anderson says he's talked to Microsoft. "But that conversation didn't go anywhere," he says.

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