Good causes have work for idle PCs

May 07, 2001

Our newsroom publishing system runs on Microsoft Windows NT, which offers a little utility called Task Manager. When you call it up, it shows you which programs are running and how much processor time each one is using.

Most of the time, I notice that almost nothing is happening. My Pentium III processor, with its umpteen gazillion transistors, is humming merrily along at 450 million cycles per second and doing absolutely zilch. In fact, unless I'm downloading a Web page, printing a document, processing a high-resolution photo or playing a 3-D game, my computer is loafing.

If I had one of those new, souped-up 1.7-gigaherz Pentium IV processors, it would loaf five times as fast. Multiply this idleness by a hundred million PCs on desktops around the world (give or take), and you have a lot of wasted computing power.

If you're the waste-not, want-not type, you can put those CPU cycles to work for a good cause by signing up your machine for a "PC Philanthropy" project on the Web. Whether it's fighting cancer, working to cure blindness or searching outer space for signs of E.T., there's a cause waiting for your computer. If you think charity begins at home, you can even use your PC to turn a buck for yourself.

These projects take advantage of processes known as "peer-to-peer networking" and "distributed computing." Although the two concepts are slightly different, they're both based on the notion that thousands or millions of networked PCs can be combined into a virtual machine far more powerful than any supercomputer on the planet.

The best-known peer-to-peer application is Napster, the popular file-sharing program that has allowed as many as 60 million enthusiasts to pool the digital music collections stored on their hard drives. Although Napster's corporate servers provide a collective index that its users can search, each PC is responsible for transferring files to other machines.

Napster's simplicity and success turned the Internet into an all-you-can-eat song buffet that anyone with an Internet connection could feast on free of charge. However, because most of the file transfers violated copyright laws, the system invited a full-scale legal attack by the music industry that has turned Napster into a shell of its former self. But the service proved that the connected PC concept could work on a scale larger than anyone thought possible.

While a peer-to-peer system allows users to share storage and collaborate across a network, distributed computing allows them to share computing power itself by putting their PCs to work on tiny pieces of problems that are too complex for a single computer to handle.

The first DC program to capture the public imagination was SETI@Home, an offshoot of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (

Its scientists developed a screen saver that downloads a tiny droplet of data from the oceans of information accumulated by the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. Each PC analyzes its chunk of data, looking for a pattern that might indicate a transmission from intelligent beings. When the program is finished, it reports back to SETI@Home and downloads another chunk. Because it works only when the computer is idle, it puts once-wasted CPU cycles to work creatively.

Since its inception two years ago, SETI@Home has attracted almost 3 million participants from 200 countries. Collectively, the group says, subscribers have donated 647,470 years of CPU time - a phenomenal application of energy.

Although the program hasn't found E.T., the astronomers' success has drawn fresh players into the game - some aiming to do good works, others to make money, and some to do both.

The latest entry is backed by none other than Intel Corp., whose prestige will help move distributed computing into the mainstream. In its first effort, the chip-making giant has teamed up with the National Foundation for Cancer Research and the University of Oxford to run a worldwide virtual test of chemicals that could form the basis for leukemia-battling drugs.

When you log on to Intel's Philanthropic Peer-to-Peer Program Web page (, you can download a 2-megabyte program called THINK that runs in the background on your desktop. THINK, in turn, downloads about 700 kilobytes worth of mathematical information about molecules that might be effective as anticancer drugs and tests them against models of proteins that are known to regulate the growth of leukemia cells.

These molecules are astoundingly complex, and evaluating all the possible combinations would take approximately 24 million hours of computing time, Intel says. But by signing up millions of users with spare computing power (about 300,000 have joined so far), the company hopes to cut the development time for new drugs from 12 years to 5.

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