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The Dark Side Of Folding

At its very heart, Folding@Home (F@H) is a noble endeavor. Like too few of the best of human inventions, it is a community effort aimed towards accomplishing an altruistic goal. The aim: To use the project's ever-increasing amount of computing power to simulate protein synthesis, and therefore eventually wipe out certain diseases that afflict humankind, including sickle cell disease, cancer, Alzeihmer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and others.

I don't think anybody can dispute that this is a noble aim. What is better than to use our ever-improving technology to alleviate human suffering? To fold with this aim in mind defines the beauty of altruism; it is selfless, voluntary, loving service without any recompense or reward in any form.

Because F@H is, by definition, a distributed computing project, it is very easy to understand why PC enthusiasts support and participate in it with admirable enthusiasm. Many PC enthusiast communities support folding teams. OCN, in fact, is home to more than twenty teams all competing against each other, as well as against teams from other communities, to produce as many viable work units to contribute towards the whole project. There are also innumerable individuals not affiliated with any groups all contributing their otherwise unused computer cycles towards the common goal.

Evidently, then, F@H has acquired a kind of competitive aspect to it, albeit one which is, in essence, a very good one. Competition, after all, is one of those things which inspires people to improve; the competitive instinct motivates people to do better than they otherwise might and achieve more.

Despite understanding this, I must confess feeling a sense of unease when I consider these points. If I'm honest, I would admit that I feel that, in some ways, the altruistic aspect inherent in folding has been somewhat compromised and corrupted by introducing the element of competition in the endeavor. Why?

Judging by many of the comments I come across, it appears to me that the primary interests for participating in F@H are 1) to show off a killer, multi-core rig OCed to the gills, and 2) to boast about how many WUs said folding rigs can now produce.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought F@H had nothing to do with PC enthusiast e-peen waving and comparison. I thought F@H was all about donating your computer's spare unused cycles so that it can join myriad others in an effort to simulate protein synthesis and hopefully find ways to prevent and cure diseases..?

I think that somewhere along the way, the noble goals of F@H got subverted, submerged, and perverted. The reason for participating in the project became much more about one's folding rig and much less about the reasons for donating your computer's spare CPU cycles to an altruistic cause. It's as if folding became the territory of someone who needed to brag, instead of that of someone with absolutely no need for glory or thanks or acknowledgment.

By no means am I alleging that this is a universal ill to which F@H has succumbed. Thankfully, the situation I'm describing and criticizing likely describes just a small minority of participants who totally miss the point of the project. Hardcore PC performance enthusiasts, after all, constitute a very small segment of the market, no matter what they might personally want to believe. And I'm not saying that it's just hardcore PC performance enthusiasts who perhaps have become blind to the real reasons for F@H.

Perhaps all this ranting is pointless anyway; as long as people do contribute to F@H and other similar altruistic distributed computing projects, humanity takes more steps closer towards accomplishing the real goals of the project.

In other words, as long as things get done... It's only me who maybe gets annoyed at some inappropriate rationales behind participation, and I'm just a lone voice.


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