How Bitcoins are related to AIDS Research

27 Sep
This is yet another reason why geeks will rule the world.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, gamers have solved the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like retrovirus that had thwarted scientists for a decade.   With this solution, researchers can develop drugs that target areas of these enzymes (i.e. ‘finding a cure’ for AIDS).   Said scientists’ computers were unable to determine the structures of the amino acids that made up this disease’s enzymes, as computers’ spatial reasoning skills are not yet as advanced as humans’.    (via the Daily What)
In this case, people were asked to help solve the retrovirus enzyme’s structure through playing a  game called Foldit, where gamers competed to determine the amino acid structures in a puzzle-like approach. “To the astonishment of the scientists, the gamers produced an accurate model of the enzyme in just three weeks,” SMH reported.  The gamers won this game so quickly that they were given actual scientific citation credit in the research paper.   This may have been ‘the first time’ that gamers have solved a ‘long-standing scientific problem’. It makes me proud to be a geek, and I’m sure we’ll see more research like this in the future.
Harnessing the power of geeks reminds me of the old screen-saver program, SETI@Home.  Have any of you used it?  The goal was to find alien life by using distributed computing to analyze of packages of radio noise collected from space.  This program was an early attempt by the University of California at Berkley, and was renowned for being able to utilize downtime on computers.  I don’t think it ever worked, and it sounds like the program might be shut down this year.  However, I do remember that I got a digital certificate for my work, and I was able to ‘donate’ my computer’s computation hours toward my High School’s total.  I don’t know if it got my school any prizes or recognition for the effort, but it was worth a try.
District Geek

But I got a shiny certificate!

I believe there are screen-savers that still work on solving problems like finding a cure for cancer and calculating prime numbers to the bazillionth digit.  I’m not sure how much effort is going toward such work nowadays, as it seems computation power can yield profit, as shown through Bitcoin mining.  Called the future ‘digital currency’ by some, Bitcoins are a new form of digital cash that can be used to purchase goods or services.  They can also exchanged with other real and virtual currencies, such as the US dollar and the Linden Dollar.  Bitcoins can -only- be generated through winning a race to process blocks of ‘Bitcoin transaction logs’ which verify Bitcoin purchase, ultimately rewarding the processor with 50 of their own Bitcoins for the effort.  Unlike Seti@Home, these packages are so complex that it would take years for a home PC to solve one block.  Instead, massive computer farms are dedicated to ‘mining’ Bitcoins.
Ok, it’s an 8-bit coin

I italicized -only- above because this process for ‘minting’ Bitcoins is under scrutiny; there is no centralized authority for this currency.  Instead, Bitcoin is underwritten by a peer-to-peer network akin to file-sharing services like BitTorrent, with certificates and public-key encryptions that are signed during transactions ‘to prevent duplication’.  Those blocks of transaction logs that are used to generate more Bitcoins are the only way to verify if the Bitcoins themselves are forged. (Thanks to the Economist.) However, Bitcoin currency exchange systems can be hacked, and many are unsure whether it is worth investing in.  Do any of you mine or trade Bitcoins?  If so, how has the experience been?

UPDATE 9/29: Thank you to all those that commented on this post.  My research on Bitcoins security had holes, and I hope that the edits to the above section correctly address these issues.  Also, now you can buy ‘real Bitcoins‘!

 Tangential economic musing aside, the progress made by gamers and tech geeks alike is impressive.   We’re kicking ass and solving the world’s problems, one win at a time.  Game on.


6 Responses to “How Bitcoins are related to AIDS Research”

  1. Dan 28 September 2011 at 1:53 am #

    Bitcoin has never been hacked – just websites that provide bitcoin service. It’s like you’re saying bit torrent has been compromised because some sites have been closed down or hacked. Both protocols remain intact and are robust.
    No bitcoin has ever been forged. In fact it gets more difficult over time. You can only do it if you own 51% of the total network’s computing power.
    If you did own 51% you’d use it to generate coins, not undermine the system that’s giving you more than half of all the coins being generated.

  2. julz 28 September 2011 at 10:38 am #

    No – in fact *the bitcoin system* has not been hacked.
    Plenty of bitcoin-related services have been hacked – just like plenty of US Dollar related and visa/mastercard related services have been hacked.

    The bitcoin system itself is going along just fine.

  3. julz 28 September 2011 at 10:49 am #

    ” Unfortunately, there are now so many that it is proving more difficult to detect fraud, and easier to insert false Bitcoins into the system. (Thanks to the Economist.) ”

    How on earth did you come up with that piece of misinformation? The economist explains how Bitcoin *SOLVED* the problem of detecting fraud, double spending etc. I think you should reread it.

    Bitcoins are restricted in issuance rate and total number – and there is no easy getting around that. It would take 10’s of millions of dollars of equipment and resources to even attempt a double spend – and it would not be able to be done surreptitiously.
    There are no false Bitcoins on the network.

  4. isaunter 28 September 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    Thanks for the comments! I admit, I researched the information, but it’s a bit diverse. As cited, my sources are SMH and the Economist.

    • julz 29 September 2011 at 12:46 am #

      I’m just letting you know that there is a factual error in your article for which you’ve thanked the Economist – but this error appears to be yours not theirs.

      I don’t mean to be down on your article – it’s a great little summary of some fascinating developments and parallels in harnessing distributed computation systems.. but I don’t see how:
      “Unfortunately, there are now so many that it is proving more difficult to detect fraud, and easier to insert false Bitcoins into the system”
      can be gleaned from the Economist article cited; and in fact, regardless of the source, the statement is simply false.

      The Economist article does describe in a rather strange way the *theoretical* difficulties of securing a p2p currency, and they seem to imply it was done for Bitcoin as an afterthought – so they have worded it a bit confusingly. Actually Bitcoin *by design* doesn’t allow ‘false Bitcoins to be inserted into the system’.
      It’s unfortunate they used the word ‘forged’ for the first 50 Bitcoins – perhaps more suitable would be ‘seeded’ or ‘defined’. All coins from then on can only be created by following the network rules – and the network gets *harder* to attack as it gets bigger.

  5. Kelley Mattice 26 October 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    I genuinely appreciate your piece of work, Great post.

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