Researchers at Stanford University's Folding@Home project will soon find out whether Sony's PlayStation 3 can serve a good cause--as a tool to learn more about diseases. For years, Folding@Home researchers have squeezed power from specialized graphics chips and microprocessors found in PCs and gaming machines to study the molecular shapes of certain proteins in patients with cancers and diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's. Their idea is to yoke together as many PS3s over a network so they perform like a giant computer--a concept that's known as parallel computing.
Sony and Stanford had previously said they would try this but the software to make it all happen will finally be available later this month. By then, anybody with a PS3 will be able to download the latest software update and lend Folding@Home some processing oomph from the PS3's powerful Cell chip and graphics chip. Most people probably won't even notice the difference. (OK, the PS3 will have to stay on so it will show up on the electricity bill.) Call it e-philanthropy for the technorati. With about 10,000 PS3s, Folding@Home's will crank out more than one quadrillion floating-point calculations per second, or one "petaflop." That's as fast as some of the world's most souped-up supercomputers, which are used for weapons development, scientific research, auto-safety testing and product design. PS3 owners, here's your chance to give to science without making a dent in your wallet or leaving the sofa.