Gamers Help Solve AIDS Protein Mystery

Players of Foldit game solve retrovirus protein structure

1 min read
Gamers Help Solve AIDS Protein Mystery

Even with advanced technologies, such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, deciphering protein structures can be difficult. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Washington decided to enlist the help of citizen scientists by turning the structure discovery process into a spatial reasoning game. The game, called Foldit, became an international phenomenon, attracting thousands of players.

The University of Washington team was so impressed by the Foldit players' performance that they presented them with an AIDS-related protein that had stumped researchers for years. The players, working together in online teams, figured out the structure of the protein in a matter of weeks. The results were published this week as a brief communication in Nature Structure & Molecular Biology. The researchers believe that it's the first instance of online gamers solving a longstanding scientific problem.

It's a big victory for proponents of citizen science, but it's also important to realize that this kind of success rarely happens automatically. It has taken continuous tinkering to optimize the game so that players without any background in biochemistry can use it effectively. Without these tweaks, Foldit might have been a fun game, but it probably wouldn't have contributed to science in the same way.

Image, Foldit, University of Washington

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The Future of Deep Learning Is Photonic

Computing with light could slash the energy needs of neural networks

10 min read
Image of a computer rendering.

This computer rendering depicts the pattern on a photonic chip that the author and his colleagues have devised for performing neural-network calculations using light.

Alexander Sludds

Think of the many tasks to which computers are being applied that in the not-so-distant past required human intuition. Computers routinely identify objects in images, transcribe speech, translate between languages, diagnose medical conditions, play complex games, and drive cars.

The technique that has empowered these stunning developments is called deep learning, a term that refers to mathematical models known as artificial neural networks. Deep learning is a subfield of machine learning, a branch of computer science based on fitting complex models to data.

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