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Computer Games, Distributed Computing, and Life Extension

Posted: Tue, April 09, 2013 | By: Technology

by Gennady Stolyarov II

Imagine if it were possible to help cure disease and lengthen human lifespans simply by playing one’s computer games of choice. Here, I describe a concept for doing just that, and I welcome efforts from any readers to help bring it about.  

To make a practical, concrete difference in accelerating the advent of radical human life extension, one of the most powerful contributions a layman (non-biologist, non-doctor, non-engineer) can make is to donate idle computer time to distributed computing projects focused on biomedical research. Immensely promising distributed computing endeavors include Rosetta@home, Folding@home, and World Community Grid’s Human Proteome Folding and Help Conquer Cancer projects.  I am a major participant in many of these projects. (I rank in the 98.7th percentile for all distributed computing users by total credit and in the 99.5th percentile by recent average credit.) My computer runs these projects almost nonstop, and I have even made several upgrades, partly to enhance my contribution.  Distributed computing enables scientific research to occur at rates and scales previously inconceivable. Researchers utilize thousands of computers worldwide to perform incredible numbers of complex calculations that they could not have processed in their labs alone.   

Foldit: Competitive Protein Folding for Medical Science
Foldit: Competitive Protein Folding for Medical Science

Billions of computers now exist, and it seems so easy to just download a distributed computing client and let it run while the computer is idle. The computer owner does not need to be technically knowledgeable about the field of research in order to make a positive and direct contribution. Yet participation in distributed computing projects is still orders of magnitude below where it should be. For instance, as of February 23, 2013, Folding@home has 1,674,431 all-time donors of computer resources; the front page suggests that 167,833 computers are currently active in the project. Rosetta@home has 355,661 total donors, while World Community Grid has 401,270. The number of people worldwide who care about advancing medical research is surely far larger than this. 

 Yet even an easy task like installing a distributed computing client may be beyond the comfort zone of many people with busy, often hectic, lives. If these people take time out of their day for activities not related to their primary occupations, they will do so because they find those activities entertaining, relaxing, or both. Computer games are an immensely popular example; they directly engage hundreds of millions of people worldwide for hundreds of billions of hours every year. If this level of contribution were made to distributed computing projects, we would see the pace of research accelerate tenfold or more. 

There is already one game, FoldIt, that attempts to utilize human creativity to directly address one challenge related to life extension: the prediction of protein-folding configurations. FoldIt’s users have even had some success where computer algorithms have not. However, Foldit’s gameplay is not for everyone, just like any particular genre of computer game will attract some enthusiastic users but will leave others indifferent. 

To radically increase the use of distributed computing, I recommend a new approach: the design of computer games that automatically run distributed computing projects in the background when they are played. Players would not need to acquire the game with the purpose of contributing to research projects; their primary motivation should be to enjoy the game. However, one of the marketing points in the game’s favor could be that it would enable people to make a meaningful contribution to research while they enjoyed themselves. Such games would not need to be related to the subject of the research at all; they could be about absolutely anything, and there could be numerous games of this sort made to appeal to a wide variety of consumer demographics. Indeed, creators of existing games could work on ways to link them to distributed computing clients and use this to emphasize their companies’ philanthropic side.  

Rosetta@Home - Protein Folding, Design, and Docking
Rosetta@Home - Protein Folding, Design, and Docking

Each game could include an option to activate the distributed computing client even if the game is not being played. In this way, players who come to enjoy their participation in distributed computing projects could extend that participation beyond their gaming sessions. On the other hand, a lot of players would acquire the game just to play it, while being only peripherally aware of the distributed computing aspect. However, their consent to the distributed computing would be a part of the usage agreement associated with the game. They would contribute to important biomedical research by default, just like all of us contribute to the carbon dioxide available to the Earth’s plants simply by exhaling. 

I am not a programmer myself, but I strongly encourage any programmer and/or game developer reading this article to develop this proposed connection between any game and a distributed computing project. This concept should be in the public domain, and, to the extent this is possible under current law, I hereby release any original ideas or concepts in this article into the public domain in full. I seek no monetary profit or even credit from such undertakings (though I would be extremely happy to be informed of efforts to implement them). I will benefit considerably if the implementation of this idea radically accelerates life-extension research, and this benefit would certainly be enough for me.  It is in my best interest for numerous parallel, competing, or collaborative efforts to arise in this area, and for many people to try variations on this idea. 

I also welcome input from those who can anticipate some of the technical details and challenges of developing games of this sort. For instance, I would be interested in insights regarding the potential ease or difficulty of integrating a distributed computing client with another program. At present, I anticipate that most of the challenges would be technical, rather than legal, since BOINC, one of the most popular clients, is free software released under a GNU Lesser General Public License. My strong recommendation is for any efforts in this area to have an open-source character, welcoming contributions from all parties in order to make the vast benefits of this project realizable. At least some of the games created as a result could be made freely downloadable, so as to entice more people into obtaining them with nothing to lose. 

The idea is now out there. I urge you to help make it happen in any way you are able.  


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