The re-emergence of the citizen scientist began a major fast forward in 1999. Scientists at the University of California Berkeley launched a new project to virtually connect millions of computers around the world to simultaneously process and evaluate radio signals from space. The gift wrapping of this program appeared to be a colorful and unique screensaver on a participant’s computer that would innocently chug along while sitting idle. The background of this program was working hard to identify subtle clues of the existence of intelligent life somewhere out in the cosmos.
SETI@Home was not the first kind of this software (a little history), but was the first popularized and most largely distributed computing application that allowed anyone with an internet connection to take part in real scientific analysis. Although over a decade later we’re still searching for life from above, the project is considered an amazing success. It technically harnessed so much computing power and processed the results in a way no other supercomputer of its time could compete with in both efficiency and–especially–cost.
Soon after the successful launch of SETI@Home, many more scientific applications were developed into the platform of distributed computing, and many more opportunities became available to the interested citizen. Evolutionary calculations, solving for drug designs to combat AIDS and cancer, analyzing data to extract the physical structure of the Milky Way, and the detection of gravitational waves all came along into the arena (and many more). In particular, an extraordinary complicated computational problem that scientists across many fields have been trying to make progress on for decades is that of protein folding; or, how does a random chain of amino acids (the building blocks of life on Earth) configure itself into complicated three-dimensional structures, the exact pattern of which determines its vital function.
The problem is one of minimization of energy where every given chain naturally falls into a coiled state that happens to require the least amount of energy to sit in that state. Consider how much energy it takes to play the game Twister, how much more energy it takes to win at Twister. Now, consider how much energy it takes to sit on the couch with your arms at your sides watching a favorite movie. Couch potato might be your personal configuration of a minimum energy state, while your contortions during Twister require uncomfortably high energy.
Nature seems to figure this problem out because it can’t do it any other way–if the protein “feels” too kinked up then it just flips into something more comfortable. But, human beings who want to understand the physics of this process are having a difficult time coming up with a clean mathematical representation of the experience of the protein. Computers–and their mighty brute force–are used to take a chain and calculate the energy required to maintain every possible configuration of the protein with the hope to then look back at all of the results of calculated energies and see which one has the smallest value. A rather straightforward approach, but the statistical possibilities for longer and longer chains become immense.
So, here is where human intuition has been coming into play. More recently, the protein folding team decided to integrate the power of the human mind into the calculation process. They developed a game system (visit Foldit) that allowed players–the citizen scientists–to gaze at a potential configuration of a protein. The edges requiring higher energies are highlighted and they can then “play” with the configuration interactively. With each tweak of the structure, the energies would be recalculated and displayed, and the human being could feel their way to a structure that seemed to carry the least energy. Sort of how nature might do it, too… without the obvious conscious observer, but rather in a more self-organized fashion.
The results of the game can actually be tested, as likely structures identified by the citizen scientists and recognized by the professional scientists can then be generated in the laboratory and monitored to see how stable the folded pattern actual is for that protein. In fact, the first academic paper has just been published, and the author list includes some of the actual citizen scientist players of Foldit.
“Citizen science: People power” :: Nature News :: August 4, 2010
So, it’s this “people power” through distributed thinking that is bringing new success to the critically important and painfully difficult computational problem of protein folding. Similar results are also being experienced by GalaxyZoo and their expanding platform of Zooninverse, where nearly 312,000 at home users help identify interesting astronomical structures or phenomena that require subjective classification decisions. The possibilities in these classifications are nearly endless, and programming an endless list of options into computer code is maybe not the most effective use of a computer scientist’s time.
Identification of phenomena in our amazing universe by coding is just not as effective as the slick, and subconscious intuition of the alert human brain. This is a unique skill that neuroscientists don’t even remotely understand, and it is certainly a skill obviously lacking in all computers. And, it is citizen scientists who are using their unique skill to actually drive computational research and development. These efforts will help scientists better understand what results intuition can bring, and possibly how to develop computational platforms to perform in similar ways.
Maybe then, citizen science will help bring us even closer to the inevitable Singularity Event (learn more about it), predicted to occur around 2050. It is this future time when the accelerating advances in computational power will surpass that of the human brain, and things will change dramatically. Computers will gain that unique, once human-only characteristic and will then continue–on their own–to further accelerate their own technology beyond that of human engineering. The final transitional technology that directs us to The Singularity will be the final invention of our species, and from that point on we will be connected in with a powerful force that will continue our evolutionary process at an incredibly high rate.
Maybe the further development of “distributed thinking” during the 2010’s will be the key technology for The Singularity to occur. Maybe citizen scientists around the world will play the critical role in the development of this technology. A fitting connection, of course, because it would represent the ultimate final experience of the evolutionary advantage that the homo sapiens hold over all other existing species; that of invention. As a massive collective effort, our species will together participate in an evolutionary development that will lead to a fundamentally new era in life on Earth. We will as citizen scientists work together to create and invent the next step in our own evolution, and with this will bring about the next version of the humanoid, Human 2.0.