Sony is considering a new endeavor in which your PlayStation 3 might start paying at least part of its own way. Pharmaceutical and other companies have approached Sony about using home-based PS3s for a commercial, distributed supercomputer grid.

This initiative would follow the model of such successful, nonprofit initiatives in distributed data crunching as Folding@Home and SETI@Home.

Folding@Home, a Stanford University project, uses excess PS3 processing power for biomedical research primarily relating to protein folding. Incorrect protein assembly, or misfolding, can lead to Alzheimer's, Mad Cow disease, Huntington's, Parkinson's, and a variety of cancers. Voluntary participants in the mass effort install some software and leave their machines switched on. Data is downloaded and processed on the PS3 automatically, and the results sent back.

The Stanford project said on its Web site that over two million CPUs have contributed processing power over the course of the project, and that, currently, over 200,000 CPUs are "actively returning work." This is the equivalent of about 267 teraflops of processing power, according to researchers. A teraflop is a trillion floating-point operations, or mathematical computations, per second.

Most Powerful on Planet

"Folding@Home is the most powerful distributed computing resource on the planet," the project said on its Web site, "and for the calculations we run (parallel independent molecular dynamics trajectories), the most powerful supercomputer of any type (distributed or otherwise)."

A distributed processing grid, using networked home computers, has also been used successfully by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, which uses the processing power to sift radio signals for patterns that might indicate transmissions from alien civilizations.

Calling PS3 machines "games" is a bit like describing an F15 fighter jet as a "lighter than air machine." Sony has said that PS3s have as much as 30 times more processing power than an average PC. PS3s can be linked via the Internet to create one massive, virtual supercomputer.

'Large Management Challenge'

The idea of a commercial distributed processing network comes with a price, of course, although it is likely to be much less than actually building and maintaining such a huge supercomputer.

Sony is reportedly considering such incentives as points, accessories, and discounts on PS3 products for gamers allowing their consoles to be used in the project. A spokesperson for Sony said the idea is in the research stage presently, as the company tries to structure the arrangement and determine how many PS3 owners might be willing to participate. Sony said it has received numerous inquiries from companies about using this distributed-processing grid.

The idea has some appeal, said Counse Broders, a research director with technology research firm Current Analysis. "But it's one thing to have your machine used by a nonprofit to help cure cancer," he said. "It's another if it's for a commercial product."

There is the matter of how to compensate owners, he said, noting that "there's certainly a large management challenge to track how people are paid for this." The other challenge, he added, is if a commercial company is trying to do something proprietary. "SETI and basic cancer research doesn't have this problem."

But "think of all the teens playing PS3 who would love to have some extra playing time," he said.