can a screensaver find the cure?
February 5, 2003 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Oxford University is looking to take advantage of distributed computing to find a cure for smallpox. Much like SETI@Home, the Smallpox Protection Project and Oxford's effort to cure cancer rely on individual computer users to download and run screensaver software to crunch numbers in an effort to speed up processing of large amounts of data. How will this kind of initiative impact science in the future? Can we, by volunteering our processors, be part of the quest for a cure?
posted by greengrl (19 comments total)
Just wanted to make sure we also gave a shout out to Stanford University's Folding@Home and Genome@Home. All worthy projects...
posted by mathis23 at 10:25 AM on February 5, 2003

this has got to be in the running for the single best concept about the inter-connectedness of all our computers. seriously.
posted by folktrash at 10:28 AM on February 5, 2003

SETI@Home had a big advantage being the first one out of the gate (besides the one searching for the next prime number), but I've always thought Folding and Genome were a lot more practical than SETI (then again, I'm not really qualified to say that, just seems like protein folding modeling will prove to be very useful, whereas decoding radio waves from outerspace could just be a total waste of time).

Another reason I love Google.
posted by gramcracker at 10:44 AM on February 5, 2003

It's an interesting project, but doesn't it seem weird that, of all diseases, they're finding a cure for a disease that hasn't infected a single person in over 2 decades? Why aren't those cycles being used to find a cure to something like, say, malaria, that is actually killing people every day? How about the flu even? The odds of a devastating flu outbreak are far more likely that a smallpox outbreak.
posted by Kevs at 10:46 AM on February 5, 2003

Can anyone find info on what exactly my computer would be doing for this project? I searched the link provided, which gave a somewhat technical (from a medical standpoint) description of their goal, but I'm unclear on what "number crunching" means for this particular project. Presumably the screensaver would continuously download data chunks ("millions of potential anti-smallpox drugs") and compare it with other data ("possible molecular target")? Anyone familiar with the mechanics involved?
posted by gwint at 10:51 AM on February 5, 2003

wired news had an interesting little article on this today
posted by soplerfo at 11:04 AM on February 5, 2003

Just out of curiosity, what do projects like these use in terms of my system's resources? Do they max the CPU out, leading to greatly increased heat production and a shorter lifespan? Do they run my hard drive? Chew up bandwidth on my home network when I might want to use my connection on another machine?
posted by stonerose at 11:13 AM on February 5, 2003

It seems like a bit of a waste to try to cure a disease that's been wiped out. Even as a bioterror agent, I don't think smallpox is half as nasty as stuff that's out there today. After all, even when smallpox covered the world before, we were able to get rid of it. Plus, they'll never get to test any cure they develop anyways, at least not on humans.

The largest benefit I can see coming out of this is that any drugs designed to fight smallpox might affect other viruses, too.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:27 AM on February 5, 2003

Mac and Linux editions, please. Just because we're part of the marginalized computer minority doesn't mean our computers can't help cure smallpox! ;)
posted by jengod at 11:37 AM on February 5, 2003

stonerose: folding@home keeps my cpu at around 80% while it's running, but seems quite good at restricting itself to cycles which would otherwise be idle: there's no noticeable slowdown of other processes, even cpu-intensive ones; F@H just backs out of the way. (You can also set it to run only in screensaver mode, if you prefer, which makes it a non-issue.) Bandwidth usage is more or less negligible; it spends many hours chewing on each work unit before it needs to phone home for a new chunk of data. I suppose it must use the hard drive a bit when launching and shutting down, but no more so than any other program would. Can't speak to CPU heat -- though I don't know why you should be particulary worried about that: your CPU probably going to become obsolete years before it would burn out from overuse, no matter how hard you run it.
posted by ook at 11:57 AM on February 5, 2003

I like google compute (which I linked in error here). Been using it for a while now, and it's virtually transparent in effect.
posted by walrus at 12:28 PM on February 5, 2003

I second ook's post word for word. I run Folding@Home regularly on my home PC and have never had a problem with it in terms of performance, bandwidth or anything.
posted by mathis23 at 12:28 PM on February 5, 2003

To fight smallpox? Did this strike anyone as being creepy in the sense of biological weapons defense research being the same as biological weapons offense research? Would you share computer time to help the Pentagon fight the Al-Qeida?

I also remember when shared computer time, supposedly for cancer research, was misappropriated for anthrax research. Is there a credibility gap?
posted by kablam at 12:53 PM on February 5, 2003

Wow, Kablam, was that the cancer link I provided above from Oxford, or a different one? Personally, I run SETI@Home, and have had no problems with my machine. I also don't understand why they are concentrating on smallpox, when things like HIV and resistant strains of staph and TB are making the rounds. You would think that something like that would be a higher priority.
posted by greengrl at 1:07 PM on February 5, 2003

The grid is a very cool technology. It's going to be even cooler when it hits mass media radar.
posted by swerdloff at 1:38 PM on February 5, 2003

Oxford is part of the d.c. cancer/anthrax project, and there was some harumphing because *without notifying their d.c. contributors*, they shifted their research from cancer to anthrax. A lot of supporters who were there specifically to find treatments for cancer were upset at the time.

But now I notice at the end of a story, the last sentence:

"The results of the study will be given to the U.S. Department of Defense. "

As I said before, there is almost no difference between biological weapons defense research and biological weapons offense research.
posted by kablam at 2:37 PM on February 5, 2003

Can anyone find info on what exactly my computer would be doing for this project?
I believe what this does is actually track how a protien folds. THis is important because each protien has its own certain way of folding into its infal 3-D & working formation...It doesn't do a whole lot till its finished folding. For example, there's sicle cell disease, where one of the amino acid's extentions (R group) is whacked. Now, sinse this protein is actually different than normal hemoglobin, scientists would be able to track sicle-cell protiens before they form...Sinse so many diseases are immune to antibiotics (only one super drug left) that actually attack the disease AFTER its been produced, this could be like another way to treat them (kill the disease's protein before its created so they can't reproduce). Or at least thats what a gather from my college bio class...someone correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by jmd82 at 9:02 PM on February 5, 2003

Would you share computer time to help the Pentagon fight the Al-Qeida?

Yes, of course. Why?

But I echo what others have said: smallpox is a dumb target. It's a potential threat, not a realized one; and we have a very good vaccine, which has already wiped out the disease once. I'm sure there are many better things this project could be doing.

For that matter, al-Qaeda has killed a lot more people in the last decade than smallpox. I'd much prefer to donate cpu cycles to help fight al-Qaeda.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:42 PM on February 5, 2003

Well, if you were willing to donate computer time to help fight the al-Qaeda, and did so, how would you feel if, now that congress has put a hold on its funding, the Pentagon was using your "donated" resource to support the 'Total Information Awareness' project instead, and without telling you?

Remember, this is the same Pentagon that everyone assumed had shut down the office of strategic disinformation a while back, only recently admitting that they just changed the name to something "less controversial", and the new office is indeed up and running and lying to the press around the world.

Oh, yes, and they just announced that they are changing the name 'Total Information Awareness' to something different, *and* their logo, of the creepy pyramid eyeing the earth, is now being changed to a creepy pyramid with a "ribbon" through its eye, whatever that means.

But hey, image is everything. Right?

Oh, yeah, and they removed John Poindexters bio from the website, *for some reason*. Guess he didn't like having done to him what he wants to do to everyone else.
posted by kablam at 9:58 AM on February 6, 2003

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