Console manufacturers make a lot of claims about their products before launch, but curing disease is a new one. However, it isn't Sony claiming that the PlayStation 3 will be able to help fight diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, and even mad cow disease--it's a group of Stanford University researchers.
According to CNN, the university's Folding@home project will make use of the system's horsepower to run complex calculations that will help researchers better understand the complex process by which proteins form themselves. PS3 owners will be able to participate in the project by downloading a program to the system's hard drive. When it isn't busy playing games, the system will pull a chunk of data from the Folding@home project, crunch numbers, and then give the resulting data back to the researchers. In all, users will need to dedicate 10-20MB of the system's multi-GB hard drive to the program.
"These calculations that we have to do are very challenging," project head Vijay Pande told CNN. "Even if we were given all of the supercomputer resources in the country we still would not be able to do the types of things that we can do with Folding@home."
While this type of distributed computing is new for consoles, PCs have been using the technique for years. Since 1999, the University of California at Berkeley's SETI@home project has been using PC downtime to analyze data culled from radio telescopes in an effort to find narrow-bandwidth radio signals from extraterrestrial technology. Meanwhile, distributed.net claims to be the Internet's first such distributed computing project, utilizing PC downtime for academic research and public interest projects since 1997.
Passive philanthropists looking to donate their PS3's downtime might want to consider the decision carefully. Launch hardware of gaming systems are sometimes beset by bugs (or at least beset by anecdotal reports of bugs), and having such hardware playing games or crunching numbers nonstop could potentially cause problems.