It was a massive, decentralized and distributed computing project for mankind — a “supercomputer of the people,” as IBM called it. World Community Grid went online in 2004 with a mission to tackle society’s challenges by harnessing the world’s spare computing power. By pointing millions of cooperating machines toward Herculean research tasks, the company aimed to ease computational burdens in highly complex areas like genomics and immunology and improve the lives of people everywhere.
For IBM, World Community Grid bore all the hallmarks of the company’s social- and scientific-minded initiatives dating back to its work with Columbia University in the 1920s: collaboration with the world’s top scientists and academics; machines that were customized and turbocharged to tackle the scale of the ambitious projects of the day; and an audacious goal to help humanity with bold, world-changing research.
But this time the company was enlisting the help of swarms of computers. Anyone could donate spare computing power to World Community Grid by linking up with the initiative. United Devices, a grid solutions provider, aggregated the capacity. Through its Corporate Social Responsibility division, IBM donated hardware, software, technical services and hosting support. It was a first-of-its-kind philanthropic model using donated computer processing power from everyday people.
“World Community Grid demonstrates that government, business and society can be the direct beneficiary of innovation if we are willing to rethink the way innovation and science both develop and prosper," said Linda Sanford, IBM senior vice president and chairperson of the World Community Grid’s advisory board.
Even with only a fraction of the estimated 650 million personal computers in the world taking part, the World Community Grid project would have a giant virtual system at its disposal, with processing power far surpassing that of the world’s largest supercomputers. It would enable scientists to compress years of computations into months or weeks, saving vital time in the fight against diseases like AIDS and Alzheimer’s.
The idea for World Community Grid originated from a project to find smallpox treatments. IBM and United Devices harnessed the computing power of 2 million volunteers in 226 countries on the Smallpox Research Grid, an effort to speed analysis of more than 35 million drug molecules related to smallpox. It delivered results to the US Department of Defense for further study.
The principle of deploying shared computing resources proved sound and scalable. Some of the world’s most prestigious scientific, research and charitable organizations signed on, joining the World Community Grid advisory board at launch. They included the National Institutes of Health, the Mayo Clinic, Oxford University, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Market Foundation, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Programme.
million drug molecules analyzed
The initiative would have gone nowhere without the donations of computing time from countless private citizens, as well as scores of businesses and cultural and research organizations around the world. Some early adopters made headline-grabbing commitments.
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, a popular San Diego attraction, was the first cultural institution to join World Community Grid. It donated the idle computing time of its administrative machines and encouraged its hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to contribute theirs.
World Community Grid also tapped the US Tennis Association for resources. During the 2005 US Open, all on-site employees donated their idle computing time.
IBM worked with Disney on a Smarter Planet exhibition at EPCOT to show how technology shaped people’s lives and contributed to solving societal problems. Putting the lesson in action, the exhibit donated its spare computing cycles to World Community Grid.
World Community Grid reached an impressive milestone, surpassing 2 million participating computers from roughly 600,000 volunteers in 80 countries.
World Community Grid proved appealing to a broad range of constituents researching everything from diseases to climate change. And if accelerating research was the primary goal of the initiative, that promise was fulfilled. Researchers at the Ontario Cancer Institute and scientists at the Princess Margaret Hospital and University Health Network used World Community Grid to analyze data in the fight against cancer. The analysis would have taken conventional computers 162 years to complete. World Community Grid did it in less than two years.
How long it would have taken for conventional computers to analyze data in the fight against cancer
How long it took World Community Grid to analyze the same data
Fiocruz, a biomedical sciences research institute, launched the genome comparison project with help from World Community Grid. The project aimed to compare proteins in a fully sequenced human genome and create a database of the results. Given the technological, financial and human resources available, it would have typically taken more than 10 years to complete the research. Instead, it took about seven months and produced a rich comparative database available to scientists for future research.
How long it would have taken for conventional computers to complete the genome comparison project
How long it took for World Community Grid to complete the same research
In 2012, the University of Virginia worked with World Community Grid to predict the environmental and economic effects of business and farming decisions over 20 years on the Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary. It conducted 1.3 million simulations in one year, a feat that traditionally would have taken 90 years. The Scripps Research Institute, a private, nonprofit research organization, tapped World Community Grid to develop chemical strategies to treat people with HIV, citing the need for computing resources to handle the huge computational challenges created by the number of possible disease mutations and the possible chemical compounds to treat them. Later, following IBM Watson’s winning celebrity turn on the game show Jeopardy!, IBM applied a portion of the prize money to help Scripps find a cure for malaria using the World Community Grid.
How long it would have taken conventional computers to conduct 1.3 million simulations
How long it took World Community Grid to conduct the same simulations
Over time, IBM began to redefine how it engaged with humanitarian research as it sharpened its focus on costs and benefits. In 2021, the company entrusted the Krembil Research Institute, a Toronto-based academic medical research institute, with the legacy of World Community Grid. As of June 2022, some 806,000 volunteers had donated more than 2.4 million years of spare computing time.
With those millions of computers behind it, Krembil continues to partner with leading academic and scientific research teams on humanitarian science initiatives and expand on IBM’s original remit of using citizen computing to benefit mankind.
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