Saving the world, one workunit at a time

06Jan07

Back when I was a kid, I had this dream about being a super hero that saves the world during her time of distress. Today, society forces me to stamp that dream as ‘sweet but stupid’. Most of us think that whatever happens to the world, we can not change it. There are no ways of changing it.

In-fact, there are more ways to save the world today than there is back then. And most of them does not involve you being a superhero of some sort, and the world being in the brink of cataclysmic peril in some way.


Or may be the world already is in peril (that’s why you wan’t to save it in the first place). But not in the way that only super-strong-bozo-in-fancy-stocking-outfit can help. Think about it. The climate change threatens our food supplies. Incurable and infectious diseases decreases our life expectation. Or may be just that nagging little question : “Are we alone in this universe?” irritates us (or our leaders) so much that that we (or our leaders) have become hostile towards fellow human. Notice or not, there are many problems out there that involve the fate of our world.

Out there in the Internet, there are dedicated people joined in research projects run by universities or other institutions that tries to answer such problems. Take for example the BBC climate change experiment. The research project, a collaboration of British BBC and Oxford University, aims at testing a multitude of climate models that researchers have been developed, and tries to predict as accurate as possible, the future of our beloved home planet. Another one, Rosetta@home, is a project that tries to simulate the ‘folding’ process of proteins. The ‘folding’ process determines the structure of proteins, the basic building blocks of life-kind. The structure of proteins determines it’s functions. Knowing which protein structure has which function will greatly helps in finding cures for diseases such as cancers, HIV, or malaria.

The previously mention researches, and all other similar projects, have one thing in common. They try to answer difficult questions. Through mathematical modelling, they know what the possible answers are (or at least, what they look like). The problem is, the possibilities (the search space) are so many, like looking for a needle in a haystack, if not a barn-full of haystacks! Here’s the knack. If we have one worker searching the entire barn, it will take forever to find that elusive needle. But what if we tore down the haystacks and pass it to a thousand of workers to sieve it. Chances are, we’ll find the needle sooner.

Here is where hand-to-hand effort is needed, or in a fancier lingo, distributed computing. Here is where you and I can become the hero. If you are reading this post, then you already have computing power sits in front of you (unless of course you’re reading this through a cellphone/PDA, which I doubt people will) . Our PC might spend most of it’s time sittin’ idle. Why not donate this wasted time for better cause? It’s not that difficult. In fact, you’ll do almost nothing. It’s easy. It’s safe and It’s fun! (I’m begining to sound like a detergent sales rep)

First, think of a research project that you would like to participate. You have seen two example above. This list provides more option. Now, it’s good to be generous, but it is better if you focus on a one project. Read the website, find information of what they are doing actually. You can, however, join in blindly without having to understand what is going on, but where’s the fun in that? You won’t get that ‘sense of purpose’ that this kind of undertaking really need. Midway, you might wanna question back why were you decide to spend your computer time and Internet line that you own and paid for to get involved in the project. The knowledge that you are doing something significant, no matter how small it is, can give you that sense of purpose.

Next, download the software required. Now there has been an advancement in this part. Used to be, there are different programs for different projects. But now most of the research project that requires distributed computing, uses BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). You just have to download the required BOINC version suitable to your computing environment (PC, Mac, or *NIX) and findout the URL for your project, and that’s it. BOINC will download ‘workunits’ from the project site, perform the computation using your computer idle time, and send the result back to the project site.

As you can see, no need to have a superhuman strength to save the world. Just let your computer do it. And guess what? If you’ve completed a unit of work, you’ll get a reward! But don’t get too excited, the reward’s just some memento for you alone to reflect on your valor in saving the world. This I have written, are just one way to save the world. As in many other may, discretion and consistency are needed most.

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One Response to “Saving the world, one workunit at a time”

  1. I like what you guys are usually up too. This kind of clever work and reporting!
    Keep up the terrific works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll.


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