Research

Saving the world with spare computing power

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Kate Scott, Digital Marketing Platforms Lead, IBM A/NZ

Can you find a cure for cancer while playing Minecraft? How about smashing the Zika virus while creating a presentation? Or tackling climate change issues at the same time as updating Facebook?

The answer is, yes, you can, and the vehicle is the World Community Grid.

World Community Grid is a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) project from IBM. Started in 2004, it harnesses the unused computing power of everyday computers and smartphones to create a virtual supercomputer to fight global problems.

Is your computer bored? Give it something important to do

The grid works by having volunteers download an app (created by UC Berkley) that allows calculations to be run in the background of a computer’s normal work. While not going anywhere near the files or information on that computer. Plus, the app only runs when the computer is plugged in (so it doesn’t drain battery) and stops if the computer reaches a processing level of over 60% of it’s available capacity.

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So far, over 20 research projects have been completed, tackling topics from clean water, to fighting malaria, to mapping genomes. Of the eight projects currently active, the longest-running one is FightAIDS@Home and the newest is the Microbiome Immunity Project.

My instance of the World Community Grid is working to identify chemical markers associated with various types of cancer. It’s working to help with early detection and personalised treatment design. The project has been running since November 2013, is 57% complete and in the past six months or so, my laptop alone has crunched 21,825 calculations (sometimes taking a couple of hours to complete one) while I’ve been answering emails.

Other computers in the network are fighting the Zika virus, Ebola, TB and childhood cancer specifically. There’s also a call currently out for submissions on projects to tackle climate issues.

There are about 730,000 computers in the World Community Grid, forming a virtual supercomputer able to process data at a rate and volume not available to most research bodies. This power is used to support research that is:

  • Humanitarian: Focused on solving problems to benefit humanity
  • Not for profit: Conducted by public or nonprofit organisations
  • Contributed to the public domain: all data generated by World Community Grid volunteers must be made freely available to the scientific community
  • Accelerated by volunteer computing technology: computations that require significant computer processing power and can be divided into small independent computations

Projects meeting these criteria can submit a proposal for consideration and, if successful, get free access to one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. To date, WCG research partners have published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals and have completed the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of years of research in less than a decade.

Click here to let your computer daydream science.

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