Is That PS3 Gonna Help Cure Cancer? Actually, It Could ...

Program's power, when not being used for gaming, can help with complex computations for research.

What's that $600 PlayStation 3 really good for? Well, besides playing games and getting gamers into arguments, according to a new program from Sony, it might just help cure some major diseases.

Sony Computer Entertainment America announced Thursday (March 15) that by the end of this month, PS3 users will be able to link their PS3s to Stanford University's Folding@Home project, a seven-year-old endeavor that harnesses computers around the world to perform complex computations needed in the research of proteins.

The project uses connected, or "distributed," computers to simulate the complex ways protein molecules fold. Scientists believe that the improper folding of proteins can result in cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other incurable diseases. Better understanding of how the folding process occurs — and why it sometimes goes awry — could help combat those afflictions.

"With PS3 now part of our network, we will be able to address questions previously considered impossible to tackle computationally, with the goal of finding cures to some of the world's most life-threatening diseases," Vijay Pande, a Stanford associate professor and Folding@Home's project leader, said in a statement released by Sony.

Console launches sometimes inspire wild stories that attest to the power of the machine a company is promoting: Although it was never proven, a half-decade ago rumors circulated that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling PS2s in an effort to use the parts to launch missiles. This time, however, there is scientific proof that the PS3's Cell processors run on some special juice.

The Folding@Home Web site indicates that while 200,000 computers are currently linked together, adding 10,000 PS3s or computers running high-end graphics cards to the network will add significant processing muscle. Such a boost would allow the Stanford project to process calculations that involve 1 quadrillion (that's 1,000,000,000,000,000) operations per second.

Naturally, security issues are a major concern, one that is addressed in the FAQ area of the organization's Web site.

"We have worked very hard to maintain the best security possible with modern computer science methodology," it reads in part. "Our software will upload and download data only from our data server here at Stanford. ... We take extensive measures to check all of the data entering your computer and the results we send back to Stanford with 2048 bit digital signatures. If the signatures don't match (on either the input or the output) the client will throw away the data and start again. This ensures, using the best software security measures developed to date (digital signatures and PKI in version 3.0), that we are keeping the tightest possible security. We do not support Folding@Home software obtained elsewhere and prohibit others to distribute the software."

So how can gamers join in? Later this month gamers will be able to download a free firmware update over the Internet. It will add a Folding@Home option to the PS3's main system menu. When gamers are not using the system to play a title or watch a movie, they can click the Folding icon and link their console to the Folding network. As the computations begin, PS3 owners will be able to watch a 3-D simulation of the protein-folding on their TV and swivel their view of the process with the system's Sixaxis controller.

The Stanford group is also developing a system that will harness the power of ATI graphics cards, the type that are often used to play video games on personal computers. The Folding site indicates that the PS3 and the graphics cards are particularly well-suited to calculating a specific behavior of water, while existing Folding methods with other computers excel in areas where the PS3 doesn't provide a boost.

The Folding site indicates that the group's first distributed project, an Alzheimer's-focused study, required two years of computational crunching. What's the advantage of adding PS3s and computer graphics cards to the mix? A statement from the group says that what used to take years to simulate thorough Folding@Home could now take "a few weeks to months."

For more information on the PS3 Folding@Home project check out http://folding.stanford.edu.