Cure cancer with your PS3

Two weeks ago Sony released a program for its PS3 game box which just might help find cures for Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and other diseases [1].

As we all know, the PS3 has a very powerful processor to generate all those stunning car crashes, real time battle scenes and deal with all that crazy gaming AI, but that power sits idle for most of the day and night. And that’s a waste.

The distributing computing folks at Folding@home and Sony are changing that and on March 15th Sony released a program (accessible within the Network menu of the XrossMediaBar (XMB™)) for the PS3 which would allow owners of any internet-connected PS3 to participate in a distributed computing project by Stanford University’s Folding@home program. This program is running processes to understand how protein folding relates to serious diseases.

What is protein folding? Here’s what the Folding@home web site says:

Proteins are biology’s workhorses, its “nanomachines”. Before proteins can carry out [their] important functions, they assemble themselves, or “fold”. The process of protein folding, while critical and fundamental to virtually all of biology, in many ways remains a mystery.

They continue...

Moreover, when proteins do not fold correctly (i.e. “misfold”), there can be serious consequences, including many well known diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Mad Cow (BSE), CJD, ALS, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s disease, and many Cancers and cancer-related syndromes.

According to Sony’s press release:

Because the protein folding process happens in about 10 one-millionths of a second, scientists must leverage computer simulations to study them. However, since a simulation and calculation this complex can take several years for one computer to observe, the FAH program sends small packets of information to millions of separate computers in the network. Once each computer tabulates its respective information, it sends it back to a central computer where all the results can be tabulated and viewed together.

They go on to say that:

...a networked PS3, thanks to its powerful Cell Broadband Engine™, is roughly 20-30 times faster than a standard PC, allowing researchers to tabulate simulations much faster. What once took 5-10 years to compute can now take a few months.

What I find amazing here in a FOSS sense is that like SETI@Home, which was a pioneer in grid computing these distributing computing projects are in the same spirit of innovation, collaboration and discovery that characterize much of FOSS movement. We collaborate through providing computing power as opposed to development IP.

BUT, here’s what caught my eye in this project. The stats on processing levels by operating system clearly show how powerful the gaming machine is.

As of today there are some 1.6 million Windows based PCs who have signed up since 2000 for the Folding@home algorithms and this has so far produced 157 TFLOPS of data through between 150,000 to 200,00 active processors, i.e., processors returning data within the last 50 days.

In less than two weeks the PS3’s have run 373 TFLOPS

The PS3s have run more than twice as much data in less than two weeks than the standard PCs have in 6 years and that’s going from no PS3s to only 28,466 reporting of the 46,278 that have signed up in 10 days!

Folding@ home says they expect they “will likely be able to attain performance on the 20 gigaflop scale per [PS3]. With about 50,000 such machines, we would be able to achieve performance on the petaflop scale.”

After only ten days they are almost there.

Makes you want to run out and buy a PS3 and game your way to solving cancer or Alzheimer’s. If Sony doesn’t start a marketing campaign around this, they’re asleep at the wheel.

And where is Mr. Bill, who’s foundation spends billions on AIDS research? What about the Xbox 360?

In the meantime you can join one of the Folding@home teams and use your GNU/Linux box to help out. The GNU/Linux operating system with some 25,000 active CPUs has generated 44 TFLOPS, not bad, not stellar, but hey it all counts.

I think I’ll join TeamUbuntu and see what happens.


Sony’s press release


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