84. Save lives with your computer
By Andrew D. Wright
Most of us use our computers to read email, surf the web, and maybe do a
bit of game playing. Our computers meanwhile are doing the machine version
of twiddling their thumbs while they wait for the next task.
Windows XP users can right click on the taskbar at the bottom of the
screen and select Task Manager to see the running processes. Something
called system idle process will usually be taking up 90% or more of the
CPU, the central processing unit.
System idle process is the computer measuring how much of its resources
are not being used by any other program. This is frequently misunderstood;
the number reported is not how much processing time the system idle
process is using, it's how much of the time your CPU is doing nothing at
The more powerful modern home computers are becoming, the more processor
cycles are being totally wasted.
You can put those precious processor cycles to good use with
the University of California at Berkeley. The letters stand for Berkeley
Open Infrastructure for Network Computing and what they mean is
researchers working on a variety of complex problems can use this one
program to carry out computing work using home computers that they could
never afford to do on their own.
BOINC is a program that
will run in the background on your computer and it
will use any processor time that no other program on your computer is
using. When you want to do something, BOINC steps out of the way and you
are no more aware it's there than you knew when the system idle process
kicked in before.
It will download data from the Internet, process it then upload the
results to the BOINC server and get a new piece to work on. These
downloads are small and don't tie up the Internet connection.
At the time of this writing there are twelve research projects that use
BOINC with more on the way. You can set BOINC to work on multiple research
projects and set what percentage of the available CPU time should go to
Four of the twelve available BOINC projects are medical research. Three of
these involve calculating the properties of protein molecules and how they
can fold into different shapes. Mad cow disease is an example of a folded
protein in action. By mathematically modelling the three dimensional
geometry of protein folding, researchers can develop new treatments.
AIDS research also benefits from this form of computer power. The World
Community Grid has a FightAIDS@Home project to fight the every changing
variants of this disease.
Astronomy buffs can help out with the Search for Extra Terrestrial
Intelligence with distributed computing pioneer SETI@Home, analysing radio
signals received by the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Einstein@Home searches for gravitational waves from rapidly spinning
super-dense neutron stars.
Three of the BOINC projects involve modelling the incredibly complex
weather patterns and climate data for Earth and working out how human
involvement can affect them. Researchers can change variables and simulate
the results and refine forecasting techniques.
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Originally published 21 May 2006