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Can cryptominers cure Coronavirus?

The Folding@home project wants to use out-of-service mining machines to help scientists learn the secrets needed to create a vaccine for COVID-19

While the markets tank over COVID-19 fears, a small group of programmers is trying to convert their cryptomining GPUs to find a cure for coronavirus.

Early internet users might remember this method from SETI@home, where users could set up their computers to run a “screensaver” that would use their idle computing power to crunch numbers for the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence project

More recently, a major focus has been the Folding@home project, which is crowdsourcing simulations of protein folding. That is at the core of a whole new field of treating and conquering virus-borne diseases. The Folding@home consortium includes a dozen research labs at universities like Notre Dame, University of Virginia, and Stockholm University, as well as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. 

It works like this: virus research churns up a lot of data. Modeling what parts of the data are most relevant and therefore most worthy of computing time takes time in itself. Research labs are already short staffed by the virus. Your average work-from-home-laptop can’t keep up. So it would be really helpful if, say, a network of high-powered, networked GPUs could get organized right about now.

Viruses “are made of a linear chain of chemicals called amino acids that, in many cases, spontaneously ‘fold’ into compact, functional structures,” wrote Folding@home project leader Greg Bowman, an assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Much like any other machine, it’s how a protein’s components are arranged and move that determine the protein’s function. In this case, the components are atoms.”

One use of viruses’ proteins, he added, is “to suppress our immune systems and reproduce themselves.”

Will cryptominers cure coronavirus?

We have this idea that creating a vaccine for COVID-19 is like the movie Contagion but really it might work more like Ready Player One. Groups of individuals can pool their resources to find where not to look as well as where to find what matters.

To help tackle coronavirus, we want to understand how these viral proteins work and how we can design therapeutics to stop them.

“This repository will contain all input files and generated datasets for the Folding@home efforts to better understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 can be targeted with small molecule and antibody therapeutics,” according to the Folding@home’s GitHub page.

“This repository will be continuously updated to share results that are being generated on Folding@home,” the post said.

The workflow is in the early stages. First it “[p]repared input files for simulations on Folding@home.” The project is currently at stage two, running actual  simulations. In the next phase Folding@home will be used to analyze this data.

Gamifying the search for ET

This follows the model of 1999’s SETI@home project, which sort of presaged the coming blockchain future. Users gained “points” for work performed on their computers, which were posted on a leaderboard. The goal was to analyze signals gathered by SETI—you remember the Jodie Foster movie “Contact.” Participants competed to search data that might contain proof of intelligent life. But as users got more competitive they began to cheat or post false information. To combat this, the software was rerouted to assign the data to multiple users at once. Only the users who agreed with the results were “rewarded.”

This led to some users leaving their home computers running during the workday and running another node at their work computer after hours—often without permission. The January 2002 BBC article about this at the time was titled “When Screensavers Are A Crime.”

This is what happened to computer technician David McOwen, when he installed a program on the PCs at DeKalb Technical College in Atlanta, Georgia, US, without first asking permission.

He loaded a distributed-computing program, similar to the Seti@home screensaver, on the college’s PCs so that spare computing capacity could help in a volunteer code-breaking challenge. For his actions, he was charged with computer theft and computer trespass.

Now that multiple countries are in a race to find the cure for COVID-19, I’m going to guess they go a little easier on people like David if they could use their (computing) powers for good.

At present, there has been so enthusiastic a response that Folding@home is working overtime to set up more simulations for COVID-19 research. But more participants are needed.

The Folding@Home team is optimistic that they can have an impact on the fight against coronavirus. And they should be. 

This technology, if scaled, could prove useful in fighting other viruses. The project has had some success with isolating certain pockets of the Ebola virus.

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Brendan Sullivan is a writer, producer, and author of the memoir Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives. Disclosure: he owns cryptocurrencies. Follow him on Twitter.

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