Gamers Helping Solve Science Puzzles

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There is a growing trend in outsourcing American scientific research.

But not to other countries. Gamers and average-guy computer users are helping the research community with some of its hardest queries. And this doesn’t necessarily mean people with connections to academia. We’re talking regular folks who are simply good observers with problem solving abilities.

The trend – where scientists have solicited help from video game enthusiasts and anyone else with a personal computer who is willing – has been building for over a decade. As research questions have become harder to answer, and the amount of data to be sorted and analyzed has grown to a nearly unmanageable volume, scientists have reached out for assistance – often with surprising success.

Research Success

A great example is the announcement in mid-September’s Journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology that teams of computer gamers – using a game specially created by researchers – were able to uncover the make-up of a class of proteins that is believed to be critical to the proliferation of the virus linked to AIDS. And they did it in three weeks. Scientists believe the break-through could lead to the protein being neutralized.

Zoran Popovic, head of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington in Seattle, and a creator of the “Foldt” game researchers used, told the Christian Science Monitor the intent is to “engage people for an extended period of time such that they actually go from novices to experts.”

In other cases, volunteers have helped analyze reams of data from NASA’s Kepler mission – that seeks Earth-like planets orbiting stars similar to our sun – and in the process discovered two possible planets through a program called “Planet Hunters” which has been ongoing for nearly a year. Through this arrangement, volunteers have classified data that would have taken a single researcher 60 years to complete, Debra Fischer, a Yale University administrator of the Planet Hunters program, told the Christian Science Monitor.

A Growing Public Network

Another approach involves recruiting run-of-the-mill computer users to allow their systems to be accessed as part of a network of public computers powering research efforts. This type of strategy has been growing since the late 1990s when a program called “SETI@home” began. It now has 3 million computers pouring over data from the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico in search of alien communications. There are currently more than three dozen similar projects in various stages of work, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Based on successes already made, economic uncertainty that continues to threaten research budgets, and growing data loads on the horizon, it appears this trend will not slow anytime soon. And with significant advances continually being made in scientific research that sounds like a benefit to everyone.

About Author

Stanley Mann loves anything science-related. If he weren’t a professional writer, Stanley would find great joy as a lab-coat wearing researcher working to solve the world’s important questions. His experience goes beyond writing, recruitment services, financial advice, job tips. He has a bit of everything.

Updated: October 21, 2011 — 8:09 am