Seven Ways to Donate Your Computer's Unused Processing Power

Help cure cancer and find aliens while you sleep.

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Sep 7 2015, 2:00pm

Photo: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Each day, humans create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data – that's a 25 followed by 29 zeros, which looks like this:

2,500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

This is a staggering number, but what does it actually mean? Well for starters, it means we are generating far more data than we can process into significant arrangements. This is particularly troubling for researchers whose fields can only advance as fast as their computer can parse through massive amounts of data. For many researchers, this usually means their research progresses very, very slowly due to lack of the requisite resources or funds necessary to complete these massive computing projects.

This will likely change with the advent of large scale quantum computers, which will be able to sort through data in a fraction of the time it takes their classical counterparts. However since we're at least a decade away from being able to harness that power for data analytics, for now scientists depend on other means for getting the most out of their data, one of the most successful methods being volunteer computing.

"Traditional forms of large-scale computing—building your own cluster, buying time on a supercomputer, buying time on commercial clouds—are all expensive. Many scientists can't afford large-scale computing. Those who don't have large research grants, work in under-funded research areas, work at small institutions, or live in poorer countries...are therefore limited in the research they can do," said David Anderson, a research scientist at UC Berkeley's Space Science Lab. "Volunteer computing tries to solve this problem."

A subset of distributed computing, an area of computer science that studies the interaction of computers distributed across a network, volunteer computing came about in 1996 through a project known as the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. GIMPS made use of volunteers who donated their computing power to help perform the mathematical calculations necessary to find Mersenne primes. GIMPS has had amazing success with their work and scientists quickly realized the latent potential in volunteer computing could be tapped for other projects which required sifting through large amounts of data.

One of these scientists was Anderson, who created and directs SETI@Home, a volunteer computing project in which people all around the world donate their computer's unused CPU power to parse through radio waves, looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence among all that cosmic noise.

While the early version of SETI@Home launched in 1999 was popular, it was also clunky, requiring users to download a new version of the program every time changes were made to the way radio data was being analyzed (which according to Anderson, was very frequently).

"It became clear that we needed a more general approach in which volunteers would install a single generic program, which would download and run science programs, including new versions of these programs, without volunteer involvement," said Anderson. "So I set out to create a software platform that would make it easy for scientists…to create volunteer computing projects like SETI@home. I envisioned a sort of "ecosystem" of projects in which those that were doing the best science—or at least doing the best job of explaining their research—would get the most computing power."

This "ecosystem" of volunteer computing projects was given life in 2004 with the launch of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), which Anderson developed after being awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2002.

BOINC works by makes use of processing power that would have otherwise have been wasted, meaning you can run it all the time without worrying about it interfering with games or other programs you are running.

To this day BOINC remains the preeminent platform for participating in volunteer computing projects (other platforms exist, but they are project specific, such as Quantum Cures for treating "orphan diseases"). With around 700,000 active computers at a given time averaging 7.2 petaflops over 24 hours, BOINC as a total entity is the 6th fastest supercomputer in the world.

BOINC is ridiculously easy to use, and because all of the awesome volunteer computing projects outlined below make use of it, here is a quick tutorial on how to get your Mac, Windows, Linux or Android computer outfitted to help search for aliens (or cure cancer, improve solar cells, and model climate change).

1) Go to the BOINC webpage

2) Download the BOINC software

Now you're ready to start saving the world one watt at a time—all you've got to do is decide how you want to help.

To get you started, we've compiled a list of some of the coolest volunteer projects currently running.

ASTEROIDS@HOME

As its name suggests, Asteroids@Home is all about our millions of anonymous cosmic neighbors.

The point of this project is to derive shapes and spins for a large portion of the solar system's asteroid population, closing the gap between how many asteroids are known to exist and the basic physical parameters of those asteroids.

Understanding the shape and spin of these asteroids has a number of practical consequences, such as helping us uncover the origins of the universe and saving earth from its next collision with a giant asteroid.

The program is run by the Astronomical Institute at the University of Prague and if you help to discover an asteroid, they will publish the initial results (and due credits) here.

POEM@HOME

POEM@Home has been run by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology since 2007 to model protein folding, the particular shape a protein assumes to perform its function.

Misfolding and protein aggregation are believed to account for dozens of diseases, including Alzheimer's, Huntington's, cystic fibrosis, and various cancers. POEM@Home works to predict the active structures of proteins, their interactions with one another, and the development of new drugs on the basis of these proteins' structures.

The results from this project have been published in numerous peer reviewed journals with credits given to those who have donated computing power to the research. (A similar project is Stanford's Folding@Home, which has been running since 2000, but uses its own platform instead of BOINC.)

ATLAS@HOME

With the Atlas@Home project, you will turn your computer into a virtual particle physics lab, helping to discover new particles at the Large Hadron Collider.

In effect, your computer is helping to run simulations for the ATLAS project, which seeks to discover new particles by smashing protons into one another. Your computer will become part of the WLCG Computing grid, which is running some 150,000 tasks at any given time, but given the massive amount of data generated at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), there's always room for more computing power. Who knows, maybe you'll help to discover the long sought-after dark matter particle.

If you're interested in running other simulations like Atlas@Home, you can check out a full list of the volunteer computing projects connected to CERN at LHC@Home.

MALARIACONTROL.NET

Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Malariacontrol.net is run by the Swiss Tropical Institute to model the transmission of malaria and its methods of control.

This will lead to more informed preventative measures, like effective mosquito net and vaccine disbursement in at-risk areas. Due to the size of human populations involved in modeling infectious disease, the researchers have turned to volunteer computing to help keep costs down. Another great volunteer computing project for fighting malaria is FIND@Home, which seeks to model the ways malaria develops resistance to vaccines in order to develop drugs that are always one step ahead of the disease.

EINSTEIN@HOME

Einstein@Home is looking for astrophysical signals from spinning neutron stars, called pulsars, using data from a number of Earth-based and space based detection mechanisms.

So far, volunteers from the project have discovered over 36 new neutron stars.

The project's ultimate goal is to detect gravitational waves, which if Einstein was correct, should be emitted from these neutron stars. So far, the waves remain elusive, which is probably just because you've just been too lazy to help these scientists detect them.

QUAKE CATCHER NETWORK

The Quake Catcher Network turns your computer into a seismograph to enable more robust earthquake monitoring and ensure the safety of those who are in affected areas.

There are two ways to go about donating your computer to QCN: you can make use of your computer or mobile device's MEMS accelerometer, a vibrational sensor that is typically used for protecting a device's hardware, or you can request that QCN send you an external MEMS sensor that can be connected to your computer by USB.

While the latter provides a much better reading, you'll probably have to pay $49 to have QCN send you the sensor (unless you teach in a K-12 school, in which case it will be free). If you don't have the spare cash lying around, your computer's internal sensor will probably work just fine on its own.

WORLD COMMUNITY GRID

Perhaps the most ambitious project on this list, IBM's World Community Grid is the umbrella for a number of non-profit projects addressing some of humanity's most pressing problems. Through WCG, you can donate your spare computing power to help Harvard researchers design the most efficient solar cell in the world, help scientists develop new drugs to fight ebola, or design more personalized cancer treatments by mapping cancer markers.

The project started in 2004 and has supported 24 independent projects worldwide, ranging from ending childhood cancer to clean water, and had some remarkable results thanks to the computing power provided by volunteers (for example, the discovery of seven compounds that destroy neuroblastoma cancer cells without side effects).

BITCOIN UTOPIA

Launched in March 2014, this commercial Finnish program puts your extra CPU power to work mining for Bitcoins to support research.

The idea is basically to use the site as a crowd-sourcing donation platform—users can post science-related projects and others can donate their spare computing power to mine the cryptocurrency to support the project of their choice, such as Milkway@Home or suspended animation services in Finland.

This is just a small sample of the projects you can donate your unused computing power to by way of the BOINC platform. There are over 60 projects that are supported through BOINC and you can check out the full list here.