Idle ordinary computers contribute to scientific advancements

by Grace Sall

Most computers are used for domestic tasks and sit idly when not in use. But various programs can take seemingly unused computers and put them to work in research.

These programs, such as folding.stanford.edu, World Community Grid and boinc.berkeley.edu (BOINC) run simulations on computers in hopes of advancing knowledge of various diseases. Some of these diseases include breast and kidney cancer, the zika and ebola viruses, Hepatitis C, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. Other programs like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) run simulations in search of, you guessed it, extraterrestrial life.

“There are a number of different types of software that are utilizing the ability to allow people around the world to use the processing power of their computers to accomplish something collectively… Folding@home is focused on using this collective power for researching cancer,” science teacher Mr. Tim Barth said.

About 94 percent of the Marian students that answered said they had no idea what folding was based on the

202 responses to the November Network Survey, but 60 percent said they would be willing to contribute if they knew more information regarding these technological advancements in science.

In previous years, many Marian lab computers contributed to these programs. The SETI program was attached to various computers throughout the building and when unused, “A radio telescope in South America records radio ‘noise’ coming from space. If you listen to A.M. radio and are not on a station, you hear the noise (actually the radio signal translated into sounds). SETI would send us a segment of their recordings and the computer would try to determine if there is any signal buried in the noise,” former physics teacher and Technology Director Bruce Esser explained.

Seth Bryant, former technology advocate at Marian and current Senior Information Security Engineer at First Data used the BOINC system, which studies diseases as well as global warming, to implement Rosetta@home, for protein research. “It was a good use of spare CPU cycles, which are waves that sometimes the computer doesn’t need to use called spare cycles. BOINC uses spare cycles to run programs,” Bryant explained. These spare cycles are where Rosetta@home resided.

Financially, registering for these programs does generally increase electrical bills due to the constant running simulations on computers. However, this software does not access any personal information.

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 8.20.06 PM“I would encourage others to look it up so that they can judge the usefulness of it and alleviate reservations about running something like this,” Barth said.

Bryant agreed, “This is all open source, reviewed by a community of peers. It is not setting up a server, but it is downloading a work file and doing it locally. There is no open connection made or maintained,” Bryant said. He also highlighted that these programs have been around for almost 15 years.

Esser and Bryant said they stopped running this software when computers had an OS update and BOINC software no longer worked. However, current Technology Director Billy Deibler believes they could be great for Marian in the future.

“Technology is changing our world and helping improve lives every day. Programs like these are just another way that it can have a positive impact on humankind. It could certainly be beneficial to implement them again into Marian’s lab computers after investigating their compatibility with current equipment and their feasibility,” Deibler said.

Through these programs, ordinary computers meticulously search for major advancements for humanity when they sit unused.

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