Cybernaut 

Save the world while you sleep

Interested in finding a cure for HIV/AIDS? A treatment for Alzheimer’s? A new gene therapy for cancer?

Then take a nap. Go for a walk. Head to the bar for a few hours. Watch TV. But whatever you do or wherever you go, please leave your computer on.

IBM and partners from several leading science and education organizations are spearheading a new global grid computing project that will essentially use your computer to crunch numbers, analyze data and run simulations when you’re not using it.

Think about it – there are more than 24 million computers in North America that are connected to the Web, about half of them through high speed broadband services. The majority of these computers are probably less than five years old, which means that most have around a gig of processing power, which means they can make about a billion calculations per second. If the average computer is used about four hours a day and sits there doing nothing for the other 20 hours, just imagine how many calculations your computer and a hive of 24 million computers can make? I tried to crunch the numbers on this one, but gave up because they made my head hurt – one billion, times 60 seconds in a minute, times 60 minutes in an hour, times 20 hours a day, times 24 million computers produced a number with about 18 zeros attached, if my feeble math skills are accurate.

Right now the grid will only work with computers that are running Microsoft Windows XP, 2000 and ME editions, but there is work underway to expand that to include Linux and Apple.

The idea is not new. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, Institute has been using grid-based computing for years, with thousands of computers analyzing a massive volume of data collected from radio telescopes. Although SETI@Home hasn’t found little green men yet, the project has found a few interesting signals that appear to be intelligent in design because of the frequency and the odd repeating patterns. More research is needed, but it’s safe to say that those strings of repeating signals would have been lost in the shuffle if it wasn’t for SETI@Home.

The IBM grid will tackle a variety of different topics, from health problems to natural disaster models. The first project, if you choose to accept it, is the Human Proteome Folding Project, sponsored by Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology. The purpose is to figure out what proteins make up a human proteome, or the proteins used by different cells and organs at different times and in different conditions – at least according to one online genome dictionary I found.

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