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Paper uncovers power of ‘Foldit gamers’ strategies

Article / Review by on November 7, 2011 – 10:11 pmNo Comments

Paper uncovers power of ‘Foldit gamers’ strategies 




Snyder, a CSE undergrad at UW, shows us how it’s done. 

Nov. 7, 2011

Researchers studying the nature of crowds playing Foldit called some strategies “shocking” in how well they mimicked some of the methods already used by protein scientists.

Gamers made headlines in September for unraveling the structure of a protein central to research on AIDS.  Today, in a paper published online at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Washington researchers reveal the creative power of Foldit players’ strategies and compare them to the best-known scientist-developed methods.

“We enabled players to create and improve each other’s best recipes to play the game.  Once we looked at the variety and creativity of these recipes, we were shocked to find state-of-the-art algorithms.” said Zoran Popovic, principal investigator of the Foldit Project and the Director of the Center for Game Science. Foldit is developed by the Center in collaboration with the biochemistry laboratory of David Baker.

“To us, this paper is even more exciting than the one in September,” said Firas Khatib, a co-author on both papers and a researcher in theBaker lab. Baker, also principal investigator on the project, has been exploring ways to further protein structure research using distributed computing for many years with the Rosetta@home project.

By studying the most effective formal recipes or algorithms that players used to solve protein structure puzzles, the group hopes to formalize complex strategies and apply them widely to scientific problems, Khatib explained. (An algorithm is a list of instructions for a computer program.) In the game, these lists are called recipes.

“With our previous papers, we proved that a scientific-discovery game can solve long-standing scientific problems, but this paper shows how gamers codified their strategies, shared them and improved them. This is just the beginning of what Foldit players are capable of solving,” explained Seth Cooper, the primary architect and co-creator of Foldit and the creative director of the Center for Game Science,

Researchers put 721 gamers under a magnifying glass during a three-month period, and studied their play in detail. These players used tools for creating, editing, sharing and rating game-playing recipes within the Foldit game. One of these, dubbed Blue Fuse, was the most popular recipe used in the game.

In the game, puzzlers must build proteins that show certain characteristics – including using the least energy. This is called “energy optimization.” Blue Fuse scored well in designing proteins for this requirement. In a surprising turn, Blue Fuse also bore a striking resemblance to a scientist-built yet-unpublished algorithm from the Baker lab that they named “Fast Relax.”

People playing the game, including the author of Blue Fuse who plays under the Foldit username Vertex, were surprisingly willing to share their recipes. Sharing, which may seem odd for competitive people, proved quite common among Foldit players. “I shared BF fully because Foldit is so much more than a game – the competition is serious and fierce, but we are also trying to improve the understanding of huge biological proteins. We collaborate and compete at the same time,” Vertex wrote. He pointed out that he built Blue Fuse partly borrowing from the elegance of another recipe by a different gamer, “Acid Tweeker.”

“Blue Fuse spawned from Acid Tweeker…and now has many children of its own. To ‘Fuze’ has even become a Foldit verb. And the next flash of inspiration can come from literally anyone,” he wrote via email.

While researchers hope to find ways to almost automate human intuition, Khatib pointed out that this study demonstrates the remarkably flexible nature of the gamer intelligence.

“Foldit players employ recipes only to do certain tasks at different stages of their puzzling,” he said. Used at the wrong time, even Blue Fuse would not give you an advantage. “The art of discovery still rests with creative game play and how and where to use the codified strategies,” explains Popovic.    The team has loaded the newest version of Foldit to allow players more creativity and more scripting tools. They wait to see what Foldit-player ingenuity and social gaming will discover next.

The project was developed by the UW Center for Game Science in collaboration with the Baker laboratory, with funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Adobe and Microsoft Corp.

Other co-authors are the Foldit players themselves, Michael Tyka, postdoctoral researcher in the Baker lab, and Kefan Xu and Ilya Makedon, both software engineers at the Center for Game Science.

###

About University of Washington

Celebrating 150 Years

Founded in 1861 by a private gift of 10 acres in what is now the heart of downtown Seattle, the UW is one of the oldest public universities on the West Coast. We’re deeply committed to upholding the responsibility that comes with that legacy. And being public has always meant being accessible.

Anyone can enjoy and be enriched by all the UW has to offer, including world-class libraries, art, music, drama, sports and the highest quality medical care in Washington state. Being public also means being engaged with our communities, and through knowledge and discovery we are elevating the quality of lives of others.

A Wishlist for the Planet. And a Plan.

Expanding World Views: UW students gain an understanding of community needs as well as issues around the globe — becoming respectful and educated citizens of the world.

Environmental Leadership: As one of the greenest regions in the country, the University of Washington also leads in environmental solutions. See how the UW is making way for a greener future.

Advancing Our World: By educating the next generation of thinkers and doers and leveraging faculty and researcher expertise, the University of Washington drives new ideas and innovations that make the world a better place.

Creating Healthier Lives: The University of Washington is committed to new discoveries in human health and improving the lives and well-being of people here and around the world.

We think differently around here. And just as importantly, we act differently, too. It’s in our DNA, not just at the University of Washington but throughout the Northwest, to reach a little higher. Dig deeper. To keep searching for better ways to learn, live and work. And for better answers to the world’s most pressing challenges.

The spirit of discovery that embraces us from every mountaintop, treetop and desktop inspires us to achieve great things. The place we call home inspires us to discover what’s next.

UW at a Glance

  • The UW is a multi-campus university in Seattle,Tacoma and Bothell, as well as a world-class academic medical center.
  • We have 16 colleges and schools and offer 1,800 undergraduate courses each quarter.
  • We confer more than 12,000 bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional degrees annually.

Our amazing students include:

    • 136 Fulbright Scholars
    • 35 Rhodes Scholars
    • 7 Marshall Scholars
    • 4 Gates Cambridge Scholars

— and counting.

Fostering Citizenship: Here and Abroad

  • The UW ranks among the top schools in the country in providing U.S. Peace Corps volunteers.
  • More than 2,000 undergraduate students participate in study abroad programs each year.

Opening doors. Expanding opportunities.

As the state’s flagship university, the UW serves more students than any other institution in the Northwest — more than 92,000 annually. In addition to UW Seattle, the university has thriving campuses in Tacoma and Bothell and a robust professional and continuing education program.

UW Tacoma, founded in 1990, has approximately 2,900 students in eight academic programs. The school’s 46-acre downtown campus, crafted from updated and restored historic buildings in the Warehouse District, has won national recognition.

UW Bothell, also founded in 1990, enjoys a 128-acre campus with more than 2,200 students enrolled in 24 undergraduate programs and 10 post-baccalaureate and graduate areas. The campus features a restored floodplain that has been turned into a wetland area. Students use it as a living laboratory for environmental research. This project won high praise from the National Wildlife Federation.

Professional and Continuing Education makes opportunities for continuing education convenient and appealing. Designed and scheduled for the working adult, programs range from helping to complete an undergraduate degree to obtaining a professional master’s or certificate. Classes are held on the Seattle campus and throughout the region.

*  The above story is adapted from materials provided by University of Washington

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