Donate Some CPU Cycles to Help Scientists Solve the World’s Biggest Problems

What if you could help cure cancer while listening to music, watching a video, or checking your emails? What if you could accelerate research with no investment of time or money? It’s actually possible. Simply donate your device’s spare computing power to help scientists solve the world’s biggest problems in health and sustainability.

How Distributed Computing Enables Volunteers to Support Research?

To address our biggest problems, researchers rely on complex calculations that require more computing power than any modern computer can provide. Even beyond the most powerful supercomputers such as the Sunway TaihuLight (China), the Cray Titan (US), or the IBM Sequoia (US). The solution? Distribute computations over many computers connected through the Internet. Each volunteer’s device will download a fraction of data from scientists servers, perform computations locally, and send results back so scientists can analyze them. ​The more volunteers are involved, the more computational power is available to speed up analyzing the huge amounts of data, or perform the zillions of calculations of complex scientific problems.

The idea of crowd-sourcing research computations through distributed computing is very compelling. That’s why it has gained massive adoption, as proved by the long list of projects that rely on this approach to solve problems which are otherwise difficult or infeasible. The list provides different info for each project such as the launch date, the home organization, or the number of active devices provided by volunteers. It also shows that many projects rely on BOINC. This is the topic addressed by the following section.

The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC)

While actual calculations are specific to a given problem, the whole idea of distributing computations over a set of networked computers is generic. This observation has been made by people from Berkeley that decided to help by developing a generic platform for distributed computing. That’s how the free software (LGP License) BOINC was born. BOINC stands for “Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing”. It takes care of sending data to process, as well as the computations to perform to volunteers’ devices and collecting back results.

An interesting feature of BOINC is that it won’t slow you down. Indeed, it monitors your device’s performance, and stays out of the way if your work requires all the computational capabilities of your equipment. Besides, BOINC computes only when your device is plugged in and charged, so it won’t run down your battery. On smartphones and tablets, it transfers data only over WiFi, so it won’t use up your cell phone plan’s data limit.

Since BOINC can be used with different data sets and any computations, it supports any kind of project, in any research area. It is up to you to decide which project you want to support. The BOINC wiki highlights the following aspects of the project/volunteer relationship that worth noting:

  • Volunteers are effectively anonymous; although they may be required to register and supply email address or other information, that are not linked to a real-world identity.
  • Because of their anonymity, volunteers are not accountable to projects. If a volunteer misbehaves in some way (for example, by intentionally returning incorrect computational results) the project cannot prosecute or discipline the volunteer.
  • Volunteers must trust projects in several ways:
    • The volunteer trusts the project to provide applications that don’t damage their computer or invade their privacy.
    • The volunteer trusts that the project is truthful about what work is being done by its applications, and how the resulting intellectual property will be used.
    • The volunteer trusts the project to follow proper security practices, so that hackers cannot use the project as a vehicle for malicious activities.

The final point is critical, since BOINC downloads project’s code that run on your device. It is up to you to decide if a project is trustworthy. Hence the importance to read its web site, find out who is behind (a university, a company, or an individual) analyze its goals, and how results are used (Will they be freely available? Will they belong to a company?). For ongoing projects, the list of their publications in scientific journals and conferences hints about their activity. Keep in mind that newer projects will obviously have few or no publications, since they lack results.

5 Scientific Projects with Potential High Impact for Humanity

At the time of writing, there are over 30 projects registered in BOINC, related to different areas of science. You’ll find below a short list of 5 them, with expected outcomes that are likely to impact different facets of our life.

  • ATLAS@Home is a project run by CERN, the famous European Organization for Nuclear Research (Switzerland). It relies on volunteer computing to run simulations for ATLAS, a particle physics experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. ATLAS searches for new particles and processes using head-on collisions of protons of extraordinary high energy.
  • is a project by Oxford University (UK) focused on climate study. It investigates climate models to make even more realistic predictions, and take into account even small changes in carbon dioxide and the sulphur cycle. This will allow us to explore how climate may change in the next century under a wide range of different scenarios.
  • Quake-Catcher Network uses sensors attached to computers and smartphones to detect seismic waves. This seismology project led by Caltech (CA, USA) aims at improving earthquake prediction. It differs from most other projects by relying on sensors (accelerometers) already included in electronic devices (laptops, smartphones) for hardware protection, navigation, and game control.
  • Rosetta@home is a biology project by University of Washington (WA, USA). The goal is to determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins in research that may ultimately lead to finding cures for some major human diseases, such as HIV, Malaria, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
  • World Community Grid is a philanthropic initiative of IBM Corporate Citizenship, the corporate social responsibility and philanthropy division of IBM. While each of the other projects has a single focus, the World Community Grid is an umbrella for a set of non-profit research on different pressing problems, including HIV-AIDS, cancer, tropical and neglected diseases, solar energy, clean water and many more. Having said that, the list below of research currently conducted as part of the World Community Grid, shows that the focus now is more on research in biology and medicine.
    • OpenZika: An international team of researchers are looking for drugs to combat the Zika virus, which can cause severe neurological problems.
    • Help Stop TB: Tuberculosis killed 1.5 million people in 2014, making it one of the world’s deadliest diseases. You can help researchers learn more about this disease and how to overcome it.
    • FightAIDS@Home – Phase 2: The first phase of FightAIDS@Home made significant advances in HIV research. As the virus evolves, the research team is now pioneering the use of new analysis techniques to better identify promising anti-HIV drugs.
    • Outsmart Ebola Together: Scientists are looking for new antiviral drugs to fight the deadly Ebola virus.
    • Mapping Cancer Markers: Researchers are identifying combinations of genetic markers that will help predict cancer and its progression, leading to better individual treatments.

How to Install BOINC to Donate Some CPU Cycles to Science?

If you want to join the effort, the first step is to download and install the BOINC Manager software. The web site detects the operating system of your device and displays the right version to download. Currently, BOINC Manager exists for all major operating systems: Windows, Linux, and Mac. You can also have it on your Android devices: the BOINC app is available on the Google Play store. The next step is to add your favorite projects to start donating your spare computing power.

When you run BOINC Manager for the first time, the display looks like Figure 1. The project list is empty. It’s time to click on the “Add Project” button.

Figure 1: BOINC Manager View Upon the First Run

You will then have to either pick individual projects, or use the account manager (Figure 2). We discuss the account manager below. But, for now we go with the first option.

Figure 2: Add Project or Use Account Manager

It leads to the list of projects that you can filter by categories (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Project Categories

Clicking a project will display the following info (Figure 4):

  • a short description of the project,
  • the research area,
  • the organization behind,
  • the project’s web site, and
  • supported operating systems

Figure 4: Project Info for the World Community Grid

Once you have chosen a project clicking on the “Next” button will trigger a communication with the project’s servers. You’ll be prompted to provide an email and a password (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Provide Your Account Info for the Selected Project

After confirmation, the project will be displayed on your project list (Figure 6). That’s all you have to do. From now on, your device will support scientific research by performing computations in the background.

Figure 6: Added Projects Run Computations in the Background

BOINC Account Manager (BAM!): One Account to Rule Them All

If you are like me, you are likely to be willing to donate to several projects, since there are multiple BOINC projects tackling different equally critical humanity challenges. One solution is to go for the World Community Grid, the gateway to support research on different topics. However, this limits you to one organization: IBM Corporate Citizenship (the IBM philanthropic division). An organization independent alternative is to use an account manager, such as BAM!. It works with most projects, although some (such as the World Community Grid) are incompatible and still require individual accounts.

Gridcoin Rewards for Donating some Computational Power to BOINC projects

Gridcoin is a decentralized, open source cryptocurrency, i.e. a block chain protocol similar Bitcoin. Its cryptographic algorithm proves that a device actually solves hosted BOINC computations. Each time a task is finished, the registered volunteer receives an amount of Gridcoins.

Gridcoin being a currency, you can use it to buy stuff. At the bottom of the Gridcoin page, there is lists with some sites where to spend Gridcoins. Alternatively, you can exchange your Gridcoins to another currency that can be either another cryptocurrency such as the Bitcoin, or a traditional currency such as the Dollar. Again, the Gridcoin page gives a list of sites specialized in cryptocurrency exchange (see the “Exchanges” menu at the top of the page).

To get Gridcoin rewards, you need first to have the BOINC client installed (go back to our dedicated section). Then, proceed to set up the Gridcoin Research wallet client. This is the software that acts as a virtual wallet for managing the Gridcoins you will earn. It is mandatory to have it properly installed to receive your earnings or pay your purchases. The installation is straight forward on Windows since it relies on a setup wizard. On other platforms, it gets more technical. You must use a terminal, and type in a series commands. The Gridcoin wiki seems like a good place for instructions for Mac OS X and Linux.

To start earning Gridcoins, the simplest option is to join the Gridcoin pool. The pool takes advantage of the account manager features available on BOINC, and speeds up earnings. After signing up to join the Gridcoin pool, you attach your favorite projects to your profile on the web site (see figure 7). The list of projects is actually a subset of what is provided by BOINC grouped in whitelist. The Gridcoin whitelist was created to increase security and to focus user’s resources on projects that are both safe and active. The last step requires going back to BOINC client and adding the Gridcoin pool as an account manager.

Figure 7: Attaching Projects to a Gridcoin Profile

Don’t expect to become rich by supporting BOINC projects. At the time of writing, a Gridcoin is worth $0.005, and there are about 48000 Gridcoins distributed every day, over all the volunteers. That is only about $240 total. A Reddit thread discusses how much do people make in a day with Gridcoin. It turns out that someone with 2 powerful PCs running 24 hours a day receives about 420 Gridcoins per day, that’s about $63 per month.

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