The world’s most powerful supercomputer is now a video game console

Over the weekend, a video game system became the heart of the most powerful supercomputer on earth. As I write this, Playstation 3 game consoles all over the world are working together to power through 493 trillion calculations per second in a group effort to find cures for Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease, Mad Cow Disease, and ...

603031_520-Paine5.jpg
603031_520-Paine5.jpg

Over the weekend, a video game system became the heart of the most powerful supercomputer on earth. As I write this, Playstation 3 game consoles all over the world are working together to power through 493 trillion calculations per second in a group effort to find cures for Alzheimer's, Huntington's Disease, Mad Cow Disease, and several forms of cancer. To put that into perspective, IBM’s Blue Gene, considered to be the fastest unclassified supercomputer, reportedly maxes out at 367 trillion calculations per second. And the Playstation 3 cluster is still growing.

The game consoles' owners have volunteered to run a special software package developed at Stanford by a group called Folding@home. Their task is to simulate protein folding, the process whereby the human body produces new proteins. Alzheimer's and other diseases appear when human proteins become malformed. Exactly how normal protein production goes bad and eventually leads to these diseases is unknown, because the processes are extremely complicated, and they happen in milliseconds. 

So scientists have begun simulating these complex processes via software—but it's no light-weight task. Most protein folding requires banks of powerful computers and days, if not months, of processing time to simulate just a few seconds of biological reaction. The "distributed computing" approach to tackling big problems isn't new. Several other projects are working to cure AIDS, study global warming, and even scan the cosmos for extraterrestrial life by dishing their software out over huge networks of computers. But Folding@home is the first to tap the power of the Playstation 3, which, it turns out, is a computational powerhouse.

Over the weekend, a video game system became the heart of the most powerful supercomputer on earth. As I write this, Playstation 3 game consoles all over the world are working together to power through 493 trillion calculations per second in a group effort to find cures for Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease, Mad Cow Disease, and several forms of cancer. To put that into perspective, IBM’s Blue Gene, considered to be the fastest unclassified supercomputer, reportedly maxes out at 367 trillion calculations per second. And the Playstation 3 cluster is still growing.

The game consoles’ owners have volunteered to run a special software package developed at Stanford by a group called Folding@home. Their task is to simulate protein folding, the process whereby the human body produces new proteins. Alzheimer’s and other diseases appear when human proteins become malformed. Exactly how normal protein production goes bad and eventually leads to these diseases is unknown, because the processes are extremely complicated, and they happen in milliseconds. 

So scientists have begun simulating these complex processes via software—but it’s no light-weight task. Most protein folding requires banks of powerful computers and days, if not months, of processing time to simulate just a few seconds of biological reaction. The “distributed computing” approach to tackling big problems isn’t new. Several other projects are working to cure AIDS, study global warming, and even scan the cosmos for extraterrestrial life by dishing their software out over huge networks of computers. But Folding@home is the first to tap the power of the Playstation 3, which, it turns out, is a computational powerhouse.

Stocked with seven processors, all tuned to perform heavy number crunching, the Playstation 3 puts the average single-processor PC to shame. (All that computing power is also using quite a bit of energy, but that’s another story.)

The Playstation 3’s formidable numbers are surely being noticed by the other distributed computing projects, so pretty soon video game consoles could also be predicting the weather, simulating nuclear explosions, or unlocking the origins of the universe. To follow the progress of the Folding@home project, be sure to check in on the regular updates published on their website.

Watch a video of the Playstation 3 Folding@home software at work:

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.