For whom the proteins fold

I know this post isn’t of my usual technical type, but I hope you’ll bear with me while I share an idea I’ve been thinking about.

Starting way back with SETI@Home, scientists have been borrowing our computer time in exchange for awesomely nerdy screen savers for years. However, it’s only fairly recently have they discovered the promise of crowd sourcing. You may have seen the headlines for the two largest successes just recently.

Crowd Sourced Protein Folding
Crowd Sourced Planet Finding

Most interesting, scientists have found that gamers are actually better at figuring these things out than they are! That’s right, all of those years you thought you were wasting time, you were actually honing your science generating skills.

But would it be possible to build on these discoveries in order to turn some proportion of the 150+ billion hours of time spent gaming a year into something good for society?

If you’re like me you didn’t have a very big allowance when you were young, maybe enough to buy a few video games a year. I’m guessing that in the current recession it’s even worse for most kids. Also, have you noticed all of those games downloadable directly to a console these days? That must be torture for the modern day low-allowance kid.

So here’s the idea: we turn these kids into an army of protein folding, planet finding scientists by paying them in virtual currency to do these tasks. They can then save up and use the virtual currency to buy the games their little hearts are burning for.

Even better, think of the secondary effects:

  1. More exposure to science for kids, some might grow up and become scientists.
  2. It’s an opportunity for great corporate publicity (especially if they give away some virtual currency for free or let scientists turn grants into it at a discounted rate).
  3. I expect that children’s very plastic brains will learn the tasks quickly and be better at them than adults.
  4. Even if it’s done for-profit with drug companies we will still get new and better medicines out of the deal.

All that’s left is for someone to lock some scientists and game console manufacturers in a room so they can figure the details out. Any takers?

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