Idle home PCs could raise cash for Charity Engine

Close-up of computer chip Most computer processors spend most of their time doing nothing

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Idle computers are being sought to raise cash for charities and contribute to a series of science projects.

Charity Engine is a "citizen science" non-profit organisation that taps into the latent computational power of idle computers.

When those computers are not being used their processors help with one of many different science or business projects.

Cash from companies paying to use the Charity Engine grid of computers is split between charities and used as prize money for those that sign up.

Super-duper computer

"Wherever there is a computer, most of the time it is idle," said Charity Engine's founder Mark McAndrew.

Central processing units (CPUs) in modern computers chips were so powerful, he added, that they completed most tasks incredibly quickly.

As a result, he said, a modern processor spent about 80% of its time doing nothing.

Many distributed computing projects have tapped into this vast number of idle machines using software that runs when the machine is not in use.

One of the first was the Seti@Home project which got participants' computers searching through radio signals for signs of alien civilisations.

Since then, volunteer computing, as it has become known, has developed and now many different projects call on idle machines to help sort through large amounts of data or try out different solutions to a particular problem.

Scientific problems as diverse as climate modelling, fundamental physics and protein folding have all been tackled by such volunteer computer grids.

The only other way to tackle such a problem would be to use a supercomputer, said Robin Willner, who oversees IBM's distributed computing project - the World Community Grid.

"It's really expensive to use a supercomputer," she said. "Especially when you are talking about a machine that features year after year in the top ten supercomputers."

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David Anderson, lead developer on the Boinc software used by many volunteer projects, said the 500,000 or so machines enrolled in these projects had roughly the same computational power as the machines that top supercomputer lists.

However, he added, there was potential for volunteer efforts to be much more powerful than those single machines.

"By my estimate only about 1% of the potential of volunteer computing has been realised," he told the BBC.

"Polls of computer owners suggest that about 5% of them, when told about volunteer computing, want to participate," he added.

"So, with roughly one and a half billion PCs in the world, there should 75 million computers instead of half a million."

To reach all those people requires publicity, marketing and other incentives to take part, he said.

Cash prizes

While some distributed computing projects, such as the University of Oxford's Climateprediction.net survive, many others including Popular Power and Porvio have failed.

Mr McAndrew said that Charity Engine was mindful of the risks involved.

Often the rewards for volunteering a computer to help with a scientific project were hard to appreciate, he said. As a result, many people dropped out or never re-installed the software when they upgraded or got a new computer.

"The problem has always been motivating people," he said.

Charity Engine's links with Oxfam, Water Aid, Action Aid and others should help by showing that participation would fund good works, he added.

Wolfram Alpha

Charity Engine was generating cash for charities by doing both scientific and commercial computing projects, said Mr McAndrew. Early jobs included web crawling and indexing work for Datafiniti.

Scientific search engine Wolfram Alpha has also signed up with a view to call on the latent computational power of the Charity Engine grid.

Stephen Wolfram said it was looking into the idea of using Charity Engine to provide the computational muscle needed to run instantly and cheaply on a lots of distributed computers.

"We already parallelise Wolfram Alpha computations in our own server infrastructure," he said, "but the idea of a stable planet-wide supply of computers is definitely appealing."

As well as sharing cash with charities, those taking part will also get the chance to win a a significant cash prize every month. Several prizes of $10,000 (£6,200) have already been handed out.

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