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Your idle computer can save the world

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Ever wanted to be a superhero? Well here’s your chance to help save the world. World Community Grid is a not-for-profit organization that uses idle personal computers to solve global challenges. From fighting cancer, to making rice crops with higher yields, to developing new AIDS drugs, the World Community Grid is working on it.

The Grid is a partnership between IBM and members of the scientific community. David Robitaille, a manager at IBM’s Corporate Citizenship and Corporate affairs department, is excited about the potential of the Grid to tackle some big problems.

“The grid is focused on some of the greatest challenges facing humanity,” he said.

The grid works by connecting millions of computers through the internet, then assigning each one a small portion of a huge task. Robitaille explained that the program is unobtrusive, running only when the computer is not in use.

“Users download the software onto their PC. When their PC is idle, the software detects that and asks the World Community Grid server for work to do,” he said.

Some of those donating their computer downtime are right here at McGill. U4 Science student Kelly Gallagher downloaded the program immediately upon hearing about it.

“I like the cancer project. It made me feel like I was doing something good for the world rather than just being lazy and going on Facebook,” she said.

The grid is friendly for users who, like Gallagher, have a passion related to one of the projects. Users are free to choose, if they wish, the project they want to donate their spare computing power to. The project Gallagher’s computer works on (Help Conquer Cancer) requires hefty computing power, because it investigates the complex 3-D structure of proteins that are related to cancer. Hopefully the project’s findings will lead to pharmaceutical innovations that will help treat the disease.

The World Community Grid takes on such large projects because it can handle them more quickly than any single computer. Drawing on over a million home computers, the time the grid takes to compute complex problems is dramatically reduced below even the fastest supercomputers. According to Robitaille, the Grid focuses on some of the most challenging problems in science.

“The World Community Grid looks for projects that will take years of computing [to complete], not just weeks or months… Using a modern supercomputer, the Help Conquer Cancer project would have taken 200 years of computing. The World Community Grid will complete the project in two years, and through those two years we will generate results that can already [be analyzed],” said Robitaille.

Although the Grid grew to an impressive one million computers this summer, the network could stand to grow much larger. Most of the approximately 600-million computers used every day employ only about 10 per cent of their power, leaving a large reservoir of latent power for the programs of the World Community Grid. The Grid has been trying hard to get more people to download the program because as more people join, more projects will be possible. The Grid community is quiet about up and coming projects, but Robitaille hinted to The Daily that a climate change program may be in the works.

Joining the World Community Grid is free, and the software is safe and easy to use. To find out how you can help make a difference, visit