Distributed Thinking: Multiplayer Game Advances Protein Structure Prediction

The collaborative and interactive multiplayer game Foldit leverages a distributed network of human users in conjunction with computer algorithms to solve protein folding problems.

Computer algorithms are currently limited in their ability to solve the notoriously difficult problem of how strings of amino acids fold into three dimensional proteins. Humans are particularly adept at visual problem solving and tend to be more flexible at planning and carrying out strategies than computer programs. Distributed thinking applications like Foldit are human-machine hybrid systems that attempt to leverage the best of each.

Distributed thinking is the next logical step in F. W. Taylor’s project to improve industrial efficiency. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) sought to improve industrial efficiency (increase production to cost ratio) and established the practice of scientific management, which is often referred to as Taylorism.

In practice Taylorism lead to workers positioned at machines along assembly lines. Each worker carried out physical actions that worked with the actions of the machines to produce something. The placement and actions were choreographed for maximum output at minimum cost (minimum number of people for a minimum number of hours).

Machines have advanced so that they now extend some of our brain-based capabilities in addition to our muscle-based abilities. Machines first enabled us to increase efficiency in manual labor jobs so that today, for example, steel companies produce far more steel per steel worker.

During the late twentieth century machine-based increases in efficiency moved into jobs that typically required a significant amount of education like the pharmacist’s job. Distributed computer software began to enable retail companies to optimize the number of pharmacists they needed across their businesses (sometimes thousands of stores) to fulfill prescriptions.

Today distributed thinking takes the human-machine relationship in human enterprise to the next level. Scientific discovery itself may be made more efficient. And imagine the uses that leveraging distributed intellectual and creative power may be put.

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  1. Pingback: Industrialized Intellect: Robot Scientists | Dr. Donald Doherty's Blog

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