” bug n. 3.a : a germ or microorganism especially when causing disease”
Merriam Webster http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary
” bug n. An unwanted and unintended property of a program”
Proponents of free and open source software, and of open licences know that many classes of difficult problems are best solved by enabling large numbers of people to attempt solutions in a parallel ad hoc manner. Or to put it another way “given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow.” With the probable exception of Steve Ballmer very few people disagree.
But there are still some who claim that however useful an insight it is in regard to software that it cannot be applied to other difficult problems. A recent report in Nature shows just how mistaken that claim is.
In an article in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology entitled ‘Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players‘ researchers report how gamers were able to figure out the molecular structure of an enzyme generated by a virus in only three weeks, solving a problem that had baffled researchers for decades. The abstract reads:
“Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein. Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.”
For those unfamiliar with abstracts of scientific journals this is a remarkably clear abstract, perhaps because the contributors have some experience in explaining their work to a ‘non-expert’ audience.
Teams of people who are not trained in molecular biology were able to produce a far better result than software. Of course the gamers were able to achieve something meaningful only because of the preceding scientific work of researchers, and the software that renders the graphic representation of the molecules and their construction.
I predict that as the news spreads we are going to be subject to two annoying typed of generalisations. The first, intoxicated with technotopian exuberance will declare that we don’t really need expert researcher, teams of volunteers can do science on their own. The second, aghast at everything that has happened since 1987 or possibly 1954 will querulously inform us that they’d rather a medical system run by trained doctors than crowdsourced from hormonal teenagers.*
But to anyone actually paying attention this is not gamers vs researchers it is games and researchers together.
* Ironically medical systems are run by politicians and accountants.