Many Processors Make Light Work

World Community Grid, the IBM-sponsored global virtual supercomputer dedicated to humanitarian efforts, turned five years old last month. The network lets people and businesses anywhere donate idle computing power to fight cancer, hunger, AIDS, pollution and other pressing worldwide problems that require massive data crunching.

During a year when many households and businesses have less than usual to give to charity, World Community Grid may be a way to make a difference without making a sacrifice. Here’s how it works: A computer owner decides to participate and takes less than ten minutes to join the grid and download a small piece of software, then resumes normal computer use. That’s it—the donor’s side of the bargain is fulfilled.

From then on the software operates much like a screen saver, kicking in whenever the user takes a break. It requests jobs from the grid, completes them in tiny increments and returns them. Over the years, World Community Grid has completed eight daunting humanitarian challenges in this manner and is currently tackling six more. Finished projects include identifying chemical compounds most likely to stop influenza’s spread in an infected person’s body, helping design—on a molecular level—treatments for muscular dystrophy, and analyzing candidate materials for the next generation of solar cells.

“We are enabling a certain kind of research—it’s a whole field of research that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” says Robin Willner, IBM’s vice president of global community initiatives. For 150 years, Willner says, science was slowed when the only way around a problem was labor-intensive trial and error. “You can see it in your mind: You’ve got the scientist with a little pipette and a little petri dish. ‘Try this one. And try that one. Try it at 1.5 percent. Try it at 2 percent.’ And this is painstaking work. What we do now is instead of doing all these trials, we do it all virtually.” For example, World Community Grid is running a project called Help Fight Childhood Cancer, which tests the molecular shapes of three million drug candidates to see whether they could bond with and disable proteins that make up the tumors most lethal to children. According to the project’s page, these 9 million virtual chemistry experiments would take 8,000 years on one computer. On the grid, the project is expected to take two years or less.

To qualify for grid help, a project must be a nonprofit humanitarian endeavor and results must be placed in the public domain.

Morgon Mae Schultz is a copy editor for MSP TechMedia

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