An Idle Computer Is the Lord's Workshop

March 16, 2007  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  TCS Daily  ·  Fumento

Perhaps you've seen headlines like these. Fascinating, huh? And they're all true ' but only to a point and one that obscures something far more important. The process by which Sony's new game console is going to help fight disease has been around for years and this very moment (or rather, when you finish this article) you can become a part of this effort making use not of something you almost certainly don't have but rather something you do have ' your PC.

The process involves something called 'distributed computing' and relies on 'borrowing' CPU cycles that aren't currently being used. Even when your machine isn't 'sleeping' or 'hibernating,' most of your CPU is idle. My computer and its CPU date back to the late Triassic period; Yet with numerous functions going on I'm currently less than 10 percent of my CPU. (Hit 'control-al-delete' on a Windows system and then click on 'performance' to see how much you're using.) Further, no matter how thin your Internet pipeline, including dial-up, your PC will send all the computations it makes so it's not even noticeable.

Link up enough CPUs, using a bit of non-invasive software provided by receiving company, and you've built a monster supercomputer.

Further, the biotech industry can easily use every bit of that power, considering that merely figuring out how a single protein folds can take a year on today's fastest supercomputers, and there are an estimated 500,000 to a million proteins in the human body. At the same time, figuring out how those proteins work could be the key to curing or treating an incredible array of diseases to the extent they have any genetic component 'and probably most illnesses do.

Ultimately a powerful-enough computer will substitute for the entire human immune system. Then 'diseases' and potential 'treatments' can be inserted as code. Testing procedures that begin in Petri dishes, proceed to animals, and then take five years or longer in humans could theoretically be performed in seconds. Obviously such computing could also be used to satisfy more non-health problems on earth than we even know exist.

Sony's agreement with Stanford's 'Folding@home' program is an effort to help the Japanese giant do well by doing good. The high-priced PS3 sold just 127,000 units in February compared to 228,000 for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and 355,000 for Nintendo's Wii, according to the research firm NPD Group. Further, Sony needs to push as many PS3s out the door as possible because it contains a Blu-Ray optical storage system that's locked in a death struggle with Toshiba's competing HD-DVD.

But Sony goes astray when its press release claims 'The Cell/B.E. processor inside each PS3 is roughly 10 times faster than a standard mainstream chip inside a personal computer (PC), so researchers are able to perform the simulations much faster.' Vijay Pande, director of Stanford's Folding@home project, claims that the PS3 can perform calculations between 20 and 30 times faster than a typical PC.

So simple a speed comparison is facetious. The question is 'Faster at what?' The PS3 chip is configured for game-playing; desktop and laptop CPUs are configured for an array of tasks. Neither is optimized for distributed computing.

Ultimately Sony loses the speed game simply because while there are only about a million PS3s in North America (They went on sale in Europe March 23), according to the International Telecommunication Union there were already 775 million personal computers in use worldwide by 2004. 'The surplus CPU performance available from a million or more personal computers can be expected to surpass that of the fastest supercomputers more than fivefold,' according to the NTT Data Corp. of Japan.

Further, a computer considered 'obsolete' by almost any other standard can still provide CPU cycles so long as there's an Internet hook-up. If you can play solitaire on your machine, you can help cure Alzheimer's.

Working out a partnership with Sony was fine, but for Folding@home and the other companies that use distributed contributing must enlist vastly more computer users. Currently Folding@home has a base of 200,000, meaning there over 800 million computers not in its base ' although other projects are using home computers for distributed computing for everything from advancing nanotechnology to detecting extraterrestrial intelligence. (Though personally I'd rather cure cancer first, then find ET's home planet.)

Companies that rely on distributed computing need to make a real advertising push, as do CPU makers like Intel, IBM, and AMD. They, too, could do well by doing good in encouraging people to buy more powerful (and expensive) processors.

One list of health-based and other distributed computing projects can be found here. Personally I'm working on a cure for cancer, thank you very much! So take five minutes to download a little software and start saving the world.