DAVID POGUE: If you’re worried about the role of technology in our lives in the future, you might be concerned about video games. Worldwide, people spend billions of hours per week playing them. But if you think that’s a colossal waste of time, then you haven’t met computer scientist Adrien Treuille.
He wants to make all that time and energy we spend on videogames, count. He believes that in the future, our obsession with them could help solve some of the world’s biggest problems.
ADRIEN TREUILLE (Carnegie Mellon University): Think about Angry Birds. People play that game 3,000,000 hours a day. If we can produce a game that benefits society, with that level of engagement, we could change the world in a week.
DAVID POGUE: But how do you make a videogame that benefits humanity?
Ask Adrien. He’s already done it twice. His games could bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and H.I.V. And the people playing them aren’t scientists.
The Carnegie Mellon professor harnesses the brainpower of the millions of people who play videogames to solve biological mysteries. It’s a concept called crowdsourcing, putting the crowd to use.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: It’s allowed us to organize humanity in ways that were never before possible. And I think we’ve just scratched the surface.
DAVID POGUE: Adrien has always loved games.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: A game is very much like a science, and there’s rules and there’s physics that you have to obey. But it’s also, like, this, totally this art.
Okay, so the rule is: “everything you say is a rule.”
DAVID POGUE: He’s been inventing them since he was little.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: When I was 12, and I had appendicitis, I started inventing card games. Since then, it’s just like, you are bored, you invent a game. That’s really fun.
DAVID POGUE: He invents games everywhere, even at the local diner.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: …being like, “The sugars are the board.” And I’m like, “You’re the Tabasco sauce, I’m the salt. Our job is to get the pepper. You can only move like this.”
DAVID POGUE: And he thinks about games 24/7, from his sleeping to his waking hours.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: I always have this notebook with me. When you’re writing, you’re, like, taking stuff out of your brain, and sometimes you need just a little bit of extra space.
DAVID POGUE: Adrien’s first science videogame began when biochemists had a problem: to fight diseases, they needed help solving protein puzzles. Computers are terrible at visual puzzles, but humans are great at them.
So where could Adrien find a massive workforce? What if he could get the millions of people playing videogames to play a different kind of game?
ADRIEN TREUILLE: And that that was the beginning of Foldit. It’s a 3D puzzle.
DAVID POGUE: Instead of birds and bombs, this game would be about protein-folding. Proteins are molecules made up of long strands of amino acids. They’re the workhorses of our cells, the machinery that keeps our body running, and they fold in thousands of different ways.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: It’s like all the pieces of the protein lock together in this sort of puzzle, like Tetris.
DAVID POGUE: How they fold will change what they do in your body.
RHIJU DAS (Biochemist): Depending on how they fold, they can either form the fibers in your hair, or the motors that run your muscles...
DAVID POGUE: A mis-folded protein can help H.I.V. replicate and cause diseases like cancer, but a well-folded one can help cure diseases.
In the lab, scientists can make the long chains of amino acids, but when it comes to folding them up properly, they have trouble. And that’s where people playing Foldit come in.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: Fundamentally, Foldit is a game where we use people to help us understand how to build these molecules, to build next generation cures.
DAVID POGUE: Adrien labored over how to get people to play, let alone understand, a game about protein-folding. So how’d he do it? He made proteins a toy.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: So, a game has rules, but a toy is just something you want to play with. Even if you didn’t know the rules, you still want to just wiggle it around and see how it works.
DAVID POGUE: Just like a Rubik’s® cube, you can twist and turn it.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: We see if they can intuit and fold a protein into that most stable shape, just by looking at it and by thinking about it and by playing with it.
DAVID POGUE: Adrien hoped the crowd could solve protein puzzles, but would the crowd show up? On May 8, 2008, they released Foldit to the world and waited.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: The servers crashed within, like, 24 hours. The public played it, and they cared about it, and they understood it, and it was one of the greatest feelings of my life.
DAVID POGUE: Foldit made history. And it isn’t Angry Birds. With over 300,000 players, this game advances science.
ASTRO TELLER (Google Inc.): It actually adds value to the world. Adrien has completely broken this mold. There are no elves in Foldit. There is no magic, there are no unicorns, and yet people love it.
DAVID POGUE: In 2011, Foldit players solved one of these puzzles in just three weeks: the riddle of a bad protein that helps H.I.V. reproduce. Identifying that structure brings us closer to designing better treatments.
So what kind of person plays a game about protein-folding?
Meet one of the top ranked Foldit players in the world. He isn’t a scientist; he’s a 9th-grader. Like most 15-year-olds, Michael Tate loves playing around.
MICHAEL TATE (Foldit Player): I play Foldit as often as I can, and I stay on for hours and hours.
DAVID POGUE: To boost your score, you have to follow the rules of protein folding: make the protein compact, and avoid empty spaces.
MICHAEL TATE: These red things are voids that I have to fill in, and I can add rubber bands that bring the protein closer together. And if you make the most hydrogen bonds between everything, you get the highest score.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: We thought we’d have to hide the science behind this veneer of a game. And then it was almost like we’d punk’d them, you know? But it was the opposite.
MICHAEL TATE: Getting lectures from your teachers, I mean, that’s boring, but if the students are having fun playing a game, oh, my gosh.
DAVID POGUE: There are thousands more like Michael. From architects to historians and bankers to organic farmers, they are the crowd.
Adrien has always had an interest in crowds. It began early, as a boy growing up in New York City.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: I would stand on the windowsill, when I was a little kid, and just stare out my window.
DAVID POGUE: Watching the flow of people from his window changed his view of crowds.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: Here was the beating of a heart, made of people.
DAVID POGUE: The effect was so powerful that in grad school, he studied and simulated the patterns that crowds make.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: It really did inspire me to think that large groups of people can be coordinated into, sort of, a dance that could, very, very powerfully be harnessed for good.
DAVID POGUE: Adrien did that with Foldit, but could he do it again? Biochemist Rhiju Das needed help with another puzzle: ribonucleic acid, or R.N.A.
Once again, computers weren’t able to solve the visual R.N.A. folding puzzles. Rhiju thought people would be better and faster. And he knew exactly whom to call to assemble his workforce.
Like proteins, R.N.A.s begin in a long chain.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: ...and then self-assemble into these beautiful, complex shapes, like, snowflake-like patterns.
DAVID POGUE: Again, their shape determines what they do in our bodies, from forming the genetic code of some viruses, to helping to create other molecules, like proteins.
So if we can figure out how they’re structured, we can fight diseases.
RHIJU DAS: Understanding how R.N.A.s work is critical for understanding life and for defeating diseases like AIDS and influenza.
DAVID POGUE: But with R.N.A., there was only one accurate way to tell if players assembled the puzzles properly: make the molecules in a real laboratory.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: We realized, “Oh, wow. That’s the game. When you hit Submit, we’re actually going to make the R.N.A., and we’re going to send you back the results.” We were like, “This is going to be so awesome. There is nothing else in the world like this.”
DAVID POGUE: Under Adrien’s guidance, his graduate student, Jee Lee, transformed their vision into Eterna, a game that would be “Played by Humans. Scored by Nature.” People would be scored by how well their molecules folded in real life. In 2011, they launched Eterna.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: It just came alive, as if someone had just flipped the switch, and turned on New York City. We were just, like, “I think we maybe did it”
DAVID POGUE: In the lab, they synthesized the molecules the players designed. They looked like stable shapes in the game, but would they fold like that in real life?
ADRIEN TREUILLE: And the results come back, and it’s basically nothing. What happens when you create a game, and you tell everyone, “We’re all going to do science together,” and then nothing comes out?
DAVID POGUE: None of the R.N.A.s folded into stable shapes, in the lab. Adrien worried Eterna was a bust, but what he didn’t count on was the community.
Eterna let the players see data on how their molecules had actually folded in the lab. The chat forums lit up.
RHIJU DAS: They’d all just start talking about data, data, data. They’d analyze it to pieces.
DAVID POGUE: Hundreds of players were discussing their mistakes and revising their strategies.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: It was like the very beginnings of science. It was almost like when alchemy was slowly turning into chemistry.
DAVID POGUE: Six months in, they plotted the players’ progress, and Adrien saw a change.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: And it was just, like, “Zhoom. The players have learned how to fold R.N.A.” And it was just like sent chills down our spine
DAVID POGUE: The players R.N.A. molecules were folding correctly.
RHIJU DAS: And I thought “Wow, that is real, that’s real science.” And that’s when I knew that it was going to work.
DAVID POGUE: The worst player design was better than the best computer design. Humans were better and faster.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: When you hire someone, you don’t know whether they’re going to be good or bad at the job. Well, we sort of hired the world, and the world turned out to be awesome.
DAVID POGUE: Adrien has only three grad students,…
ADRIEN TREUILLE: I wonder if we’re going to get better data.
DAVID POGUE: …but he has over 40,000 Eterna players, who have discovered new rules for how R.N.A. folds.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: We simply have much more manpower than anyone else, and science is about manpower.
ASTRO TELLER: I think that it’s possible that what we’re seeing in Eterna is the tip of an enormously exciting iceberg. I don’t know how large the largest problems that can be solved are, if we all contribute our own little piece.
DAVID POGUE: Adrien envisions a future where anyone and everyone can contribute to solving such huge problems, even 15-year olds, like Michael Tate.
ADRIEN TREUILLE: Maybe science is going to be like a team sport. And I don’t mean, like, a 30-person team. I mean, like, a 30,000-person team. Take these crowds and multiply it by human creativity. We’re dealing with a force way more powerful than anything we had before.