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Foldit – tapping the wisdom of computer gamers to solve tough scientific puzzles


It’s not every day that people can get published in one of the world’s leading scientific journals by playing computer games, but Foldit is no ordinary game. The brainchild of Seth Cooper from the University of Washington, Foldit taps into the collective efforts of tens of thousands computer gamers to solve scientific problems.

The goal of the game is to work out the complicated three-dimensional structures of different proteins. Proteins are feats of biological origami; they consist of long chains of amino acids that fold into very specific and complicated shapes. These shapes can reveal how proteins work but solving them is fiendishly challenging. To do it, scientists typically need to grow crystals of purified protein before bouncing X-rays off them. Foldit takes a different approach, using the collective efforts of causal gamers to do the hard work. And its best players can outperform software designed to do the same job. (more…)

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Sniff-detector allows paralysed people to write messages, surf the net and drive a wheelchair

In Israel’s Loewenstein Rehabilitation Hospital, the patient known as LI1 is a prisoner of her own body. She is a 51-year-old woman who was paralysed by a stroke several months ago. Suffering from “locked-in syndrome”, she is completely aware but unable to move or speak. She cannot even control the blinks of her eyes. And yet LI1 has recently been able answer questions from her doctors and communicate with her family through written messages. All she has to do is sniff.

LI1 uses a ‘sniff controller’, an incredible new technology that allows paralysed patients to control machines with their noses. It’s the brainchild of Anton Plotkin and Lee Sela at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Whenever a patient sniffs, the device measures the change in pressure inside their noses. It converts these into electrical signals that are passed to a computer via a simple USB connection. With just a sniff, people can move a cursor on a screen, allowing locked-in patients to write messages. Quadriplegics can even use the device to surf the web, or drive a wheelchair.

This technology was developed almost by accident in the lab of Noam Sobel, who studies the way of brains process our sense of smell. The group use a device called an olfactometer, which produces waves of smell to see how sensitive a person’s senses are. For one of their experiments, the team rigged the olfactometer so that volunteers triggered the odour pulse themselves when they sniffed. “We noticed that sniffs are a very good and fast trigger,” says Sobel. “It then simply dawned on us that instead of triggering odor, we could trigger anything: letters in a text writer or turns of a wheelchair.  The rest just flowed (or rather, rushed) from there.” It’s a fantastic example of the useful and unpredictable roads that basic scientific research can lead to.


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Photo-recognition software catches tigers by their stripes

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTigers can no more change their stripes than leopards can change their spots. That’s a good thing too, for their unchanging patterns, as individually distinct as a human fingerprint, make it easier to track any single tiger over time.

That process is about to become even simpler with a computer programme that creates a three-dimensional model of a tiger’s skin and can compare different shots of an animal taken at different times or angles. The programme is the brainchild of Lex Hilby from an organisation called Conservation Research and it could allow conservationists to track surviving tigers and to source the origins of poached skins.

Tigers are endangered and secretive animals and conservationists are increasingly relying on camera traps to take photos of them as they wander through the forests of Asia. The traps provide a series of tiger mug-shots, which trained experts can match to one another based on the pattern of stripes. That gives them valuable data about the population density of the tigers, how long individuals survive for, and how widely they travel.

But as you might imagine, matching photos by eye is a laborious job and it will only get harder as the library of tiger snaps gets larger. Hilby’s software is designed to get around that problem, by automating the search process and suggesting only images from the back-catalogue that have a good chance of matching any new photo.

Tigers don’t pose for camera-traps, so the software has to be able to cope with shots taken from a wide range of angles and with tigers adopting different postures. To do that, it creates a three-dimensional model of a tiger.


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Using our powers for good – how web security software can help to transcribe old books

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhat would you do if someone asked you to help transcribe an old book onto a website? Chances are, you’d say no on the basis that you have other things to do, or simply that it just doesn’t sound very interesting. And yet, millions of people every day are helping with precisely this task, and most are completely unaware that they’re helping out.

Recaptcha.jpgIt’s all thanks to a computer program developing by Luis von Ahn and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University. Their goal was to slightly alter a simple task that all web users encounter and convert it from wasted time into something productive. That task – and you will all have done this before – is to look at an image of a distorted word and type what it is in a box. It often turns up when you’re trying to post on a blog or sign up for an account.

The distorted word is called a CAPTCHA and, playing fast and loose with the spirit of acronyms, it stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”. Their point is to make users prove that they are human, because modern computer programs cannot discern the distorted letters as well as humans can. The CAPTCHAs are visual sentinels that protect  against automated programs that would otherwise overbuy tickets for sale at inflated prices, set up millions of fake email accounts for spamming or inundate polls, forums and blogs with comments.

They have become so commonplace that von Ahn estimates that people type in over 100 million CAPTCHAs every day. And even though the goals of improving web security is a worthwhile one, these efforts add up to hundreds of thousands of hours that are effectively wasted on a daily basis. Now, von Ahn’s team have found a way of tapping this effort and putting it to better use – to help decipher scanned words, and usher old printed books into the digital age.