NEWS - Monday, June 20, 2005

Xbox 360 To Cure Cancer?

Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are pretty cool toys, but with a simple adjustment they could both become powerful tools for science, helping researchers trace evidence of extraterrestrial life and testing possible cures for cancer. What’s missing? A distributed computing client for game consoles. The next generation of console gaming is going to see a huge increase in machine performance and overall computing power. Already planned for both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 are multiple 3.2-GHz PowerPC processors capable of handling advanced gaming and graphics simulations, along with out-of-the-box internet capabilities such as Xbox Live Silver. With all that horsepower in a machine that is used for only a fraction of a day, we should offer gamers a chance to put these unused resources to good use. Secure, dedicated servers for small to large businesses. Distributed, or "grid," computing breaks down complex computing problems into small steps that can be solved in parallel by thousands or even millions of machines at once. It is basically the difference between hiring someone to label 1,000 envelopes for you and asking your friends to each label 100 when they get the chance. In this example, the hired person is the traditional mainframe crunching numbers, while your friends are personal computers all over the world that offer to crunch small packages of calculations when they’re not busy. Distributed computing isn’t appropriate for all computing tasks. But experiments to date have proven that for so-called brute force calculations, it not only works -- it excels. Distributed computing really made a name for itself with SETI@home. In this system, users anywhere could download a small screensaver program that would crunch data from radio observatories, looking for signs of extraterrestrial life. As you’ve probably figured, we haven’t found any extraterrestrials yet, but the project proved a valid point: Distributed computing does in fact work. This point became the foundation for another grid computing project,, the first program to truly realize success. Its major accomplishment was successfully cracking RSA Laboratories’ RC5 64-bit encryption algorithm in 1,757 days utilizing more than 300,000 machines. This announcement brought about even more hope for the distributed computing world, along with the next great challenge for the world. So began Folding@Home, an internet brain child from Stanford University. Folding@Home’s mission was to create a system that would study how proteins "fold." Why proteins? The fundamental processes of biology are based on how proteins fold. Once in a while, a protein folds incorrectly, causing any slew of biological disorders ranging from Parkinson’s disease to cancer. Through distributed computing, scientists are able to crunch data on how a protein folds by breaking up the different parts of the process and dividing the task among the group of CPUs available. Currently, more than 100,000 machines are helping "unlock the mystery of how proteins fold." Distributed computing is helping make a difference in research that can affect the lives of everyone for the first time. Once scientists have enough data on how and why proteins fold, they’ll be able to use this data to search for cures for the most devastating diseases. The sooner this data is collected, the sooner we’ll be able to see tangible results really take effect. The tech community has always supported these efforts, but it’s time distributed computing moved out into the rest of the world. Imagine the possibilities of millions of gaming consoles (Sony has sold more than 70 million PlayStation 2s) contributing to a community previously limited to thousands of capable processors. How might we end up with a distributed computing client in our gaming systems? Making the client available on disc is the least intrusive means, but it will only target a subset of gaming system owners who go out of their way to get it, along with bearing the cost to produce the discs. A better method of delivery to the consumer would be to build the client as an update to firmware. As an optional update, users would be presented with an offer to install an approved distributed client of their choice into their system anytime they performed a critical system update over the internet. So, let my console fold proteins or search for E.T. when I’m not using it. Let the public take a larger role in innovative research efforts. Most importantly, let me be able to end any console debate with, "So what if your system lets you watch movies and TV, listen to music and play games? My system cures cancer."

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