PCs Saving the World

06 August 2006
Posted by Chris Smith.

f you have a computer at home or at work which is on for long periods of time then you could be helping to find new drugs for HIV/AIDS, contributing to a model of how malaria spreads across Africa, or even working out solutions to a game of chess. And the best part is - you don't have to concentrate on any of it. This is all part of something called volunteer computing. The idea is the following: there are some big problems in the world right now, and some of them need a lot of computer power to solve them. To do this, we can either run a small number of computers for a long time - but the time required might be a thousand years or more. Or, we can all chip in by using the processing power of computers which are usually on, and usually connected to the internet. Since most computers, even if they're in use, are only using a minority of their processing power, some of this power can be donated to a computer program running elsewhere in the world. Volunteer computing could make a huge difference. With HIV, the search for new drugs depends, in part, on modelling how small molecules might block the action of key HIV proteins. Running this model on a single computer would take an age. But if, say, a thousand computers from around the world donate processing power, the running time would be a fraction of what it was before. The most well-known volunteer computing program is SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which is run from Berkeley University. It's analysing radio transmissions which come from outer space, and which are picked up by a telescope in Puerto Rico. The program can spot unusual signals in a narrow radio bandwidth, which - scientists presume - must come from an extraterrestrial civilization. There are now 5 million computers running SETI around the world and, in total, the program has used over 1 million years of PC time. And... they've found nothing so far. But if you fancy trying to find ET, or indeed helping to solve a range of problems, check out volunteer computing. You can do this at
http://boinc.berkeley.edu/ and

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