After the winter holidays in 2012 I played CMU’s Eterna for several weeks, often for hours at a stretch. My addiction lasted about 6 weeks or so, as I recall. Eterna isn’t a game, really, although the ranking system did tickle my competitive instincts. In that sense, it’s a bit like a sport. From early January through mid-February of that year I devoted almost all my free hours to the online folding of RNA, a sport that is quite challenging and often fun.
As I recall, I managed to achieve a ranking of around 150 out of the 150 thousand players world-wide, which was quite a feat as far as I was concerned. At that level I found myself in the company of professional biologists and researchers, many of whom, I am sure were playing as much for fun as anything else. But having very little knowledge of biology, trusting only on my pattern-matching instincts and tireless devotion to the game, I entered those lofty ranks. As with all addictions I’ve experienced so far, I soon came to the point when I realized I had to make a change — so cold turkey I went. I logged into the site today in prep for this posting and found my ranking had (naturally) eroded since my last folding badge. I am now #355 (and still falling, I am sure) of the 153,145 folks who have ever deigned to contribute to CMU’s RNA folding experiment.
Lest you think this post is all just self-congratulatory tripe, let me get to the point — two points, actually:
1. The age of gamification is upon us.
2. Biology as software is coming fast.
Gamificaiton, as you probably know, is the use of game dynamics to influence behavior or produce desired results. Eterna’s game dynamics were a key component that hooked me, as I am quite sure was the case for others. The folding process itself is intrinsically rewarding (and frustrating), but the sports-like ranking — the competition with others — plus the merit badges (yes, they have badges) made all the difference.
Gamified applications in finance, biological research, physical fitness, and education are ascending. Perhaps a fad? Maybe not. It may very well be that as automation and ephemeralization continue, and the need for human labor erodes, games become a safe harbor for human energies. In a world where humans are no longer required to produce the goods and services humans require, what are we to do with our time? Education, entertainment, and games come to mind. It may be that the age of gamification has only just begun.
The economic implications are best left for another post. Biology as software is what I really wanted to talk about.
I downloaded a free Genome Compiler this week. Seriously. Haven’t had a chance to play with it yet, but the very idea of it is somewhat shocking. Want to design and produce some synthetic DNA? No problem. The era of at-home bioengineering is here. The next step, of course, is a genomic 3D printer to interface with the Genome Compiler, and the possibilities are literally endless — the ramifications are well beyond the scope of this article.
Orthogonally related to this Bio Hack theme is the fact that first ever high-res images of molecules actually look like their traditional textbook representations.If RNA folding based simply on pattern matching instincts allow one to produce results that are competitive with professional biologists, it’s not a stretch to imagine the same might be true of molecular design. All that’s required is a gamified interface.
A couple of other tangents … first, I have been very curious about transcranial electrical stimulation. The idea of zapping my brain with a measured direct current is darkly compelling and a little funny, so I’ve kept an eye on some of the research. Well, I am happy to report that there is finally a transcranial direct current stimulation device for home use, and I am tempted to buy one. The intended use is for gaming, of course. But increasing one’s brain plasticity is always a good idea, no matter what. If you do happen buy one and survive, please let me know if it produces the desired results.
Just it case, there’s always the possibility of growing new brain cells with infrared light.
Let the games begin! 🙂