Games in Science and Technology

Game Graphics Processors Help to Better Understand Biology

Agent-Based ModelingA group of researchers at Michigan Technological University is innovating in the field of medical research by using graphic processing units (GPUs) commonly found in video game technology. This graphic processing method is much faster than traditional state-of-the art modeling toolkits, which could play a significant role in better understanding the most complex real-life systems.

Agent-based modeling is a computational assisted method used for simulating the actions and interactions of independent items in a network, to determine their effects on the system as a whole.

The Michigan Technological University research team, led by Roshan D'Souza, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is looking to model complex biological structures, like the human immune system in response to the tuberculosis bacteria. These 3D-animations replicate the virtual reactions of T-cells and macrophages going through millions of real-time calculations.Read More...

"It really helps scientists focus their thinking," says Dr. Denise Kirschner, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who developed the TB model for D'Souza's team. "The limiting factor has been that these models take a long time to run, and [D'Souza's] method works very quickly and efficiently," she said in a news report.

Agent-based modeling has been used since the 1950s, but its use was always limited by a shortage of computing power. Until recently, the only way to run large models quickly was on multi-million-dollar supercomputers. The graphics processing units programmed by the Michigan Technological University computer science team bring significant advantages, not only saving time but also giving broader access.

"With a $1,400 desktop, we can beat a computing cluster," says D'Souza. "We are effectively democratizing supercomputing and putting these powerful tools into the hands of any researcher. Every time I present this research, I make it a point to thank the millions of video gamers who have inadvertently made this possible."

"GPUs are very difficult to program. It is completely different from regular programming," added D'Souza. "All of this work was done by [computer science] undergrads, and they are all from Michigan Tech. I've had phenomenal success with these guys—you can't put a price tag on it."