Supercomputers are an integral part of modern science. By crunching numbers and performing calculations that would take us humans eons to perform, they help us do things that would otherwise be impossible, such as: But that computing power comes at a price—literally. Supercomputer dependent research is notoriously expensive. It’s not uncommon for research organizations to pay upwards of $1,000 for a single hour of supercomputer usage, sometimes more depending on the hardware required.
But recently, instead of relying on large, expensive supercomputers to process their numbers, more and more scientists are turning to another method: distributed supercomputing. You’ve probably heard of it before. Rather than relying on a single, centralized computer to perform a specific task, this crowdsourcing style of computing sources computing power from a distributed network of volunteers, typically by running specialized software on home PCs or smartphones. Individually, these volunteer computers aren’t particularly powerful, but if you string together enough of them, their collective performance can easily dwarf that of a centralized supercomputer—and often at a fraction of the cost.
In recent years, these kinds of peer-to-peer computing projects have seen something of a renaissance, and as the computing power of our devices continues to improve, it seems like the next big thing in science could be the smartphone in your pocket.
The Birth and the Rise
The concept of volunteer computing has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s – when personal computers had made their way into a large number of US homes – that it really began to take hold.
In 1999, researchers at UC Berkeley and Stanford launched two projects that received considerable media attention and wide acceptance: SETI@home, which encouraged PC users to log in and use their CPUs to analyze radio telescope data, and Folding@home, which used this computing power to fold complex proteins.
Both projects were huge hits with the public. In fact, SETI@Home saw such a surge in initial interest that it overwhelmed the project’s servers and caused frequent crashes. But after that breakthrough success, interest eventually waned, waned, and eventually prompted the project’s creators to shelve it after 20 years.
However, Folding@home did not suffer the same fate. Around the time that the SETI@home project was coming to an end, an opportunity for Folding@home to shine came: the COVID-19 outbreak. Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, more than a million new volunteers joined the project, effectively creating the world’s fastest supercomputer – one that is more powerful than the top 500 traditional supercomputers combined. Their task was simple but crucial to cracking some of the most complex diseases including COVID-19: folding proteins.
Proteins are crucial to understanding how, for example, a virus responds to and contaminates the human immune system. In their original state, proteins exist in a folded form and unfold to bind and suppress our body’s defenses, for example. To design therapeutics, scientists run simulations to study a protein’s unfolding sequence – but it’s a very resource-intensive and time-consuming process. This is where Folding@home comes into play. Not only does it drastically reduce costs, but it also speeds up development by months and, in some cases, years.
Once Folding@home volunteers install software, their machines take over part of a larger task and process it in the background. The results are sent back via the cloud to the research group’s laboratories, where they are collected and verified.
The results were groundbreaking on several occasions. In 2021, thanks in large part to the increasing computing power of Folding@home, scientists were able to figure out why the variants of COVID-19 were more devastating. Additionally, it helped develop a COVID-19 antiviral drug that is now moving toward clinical trials. In addition, Folding@home has also enabled a number of significant breakthroughs in other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer.
Without crowdsourcing computing, says Dr. Gregory R. Bowman, director of Folding@home and associate professor at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri: “This work would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in the cloud, making it economically unfeasible for us or most others power.” He added, “The computing power is groundbreaking.”
A new kind of Citizen Science
Excitingly, projects like Folding@home aren’t the only way scientists are harnessing the power of smartphones. Sometimes raw computing power isn’t particularly important, and researchers simply need a broader range of information – information that only thousands of people around the world can collect and deliver.
For example, in March this year, the European Space Agency launched its Camaliot campaign, which aims to improve weather apps by making creative use of the GPS receiver in people’s Android phones. You see, whenever your phone pings satellites for navigation, they reply with the time and their location, and phones calculate where they are based on how long each message took to arrive. The time it takes for each signal can better inform scientists about the properties of the atmosphere, such as: B. the amount of water vapor in it, which in turn can help predict more accurate rain forecasts. However, the ESA team can only conduct this activity from a limited number of locations.
The Camaliot app allows Android phone owners from all over the world to contribute to the ESA project. It repeatedly pings satellites from people’s phones and sends the collected response data back to ESA’s base.
With Camaliot, ESA hopes to collect data from areas like Africa that are of high interest from an ionospheric perspective and that are not well covered by the agency’s geospatially-constrained centralized methods, according to Vicente Navarro, the European Space Agency’s Directorate of Science and lead on the Camaliot campaign, Digital Trends said.
But the question remains: why would anyone borrow their device’s power for free? In addition to increased electricity bills, it also affects the performance and health of your phones and computers. But even with those downsides, for many like Jeffrey Brice, a sound designer who’s been folding proteins since 2007, the answer is pretty simple: do good.
“I was interested in cryptocurrency for a while,” Brice said, “but using the same hardware for Folding@home seemed like a better, more ethical and more philanthropic use of the gear.”
For others it is a source of passive income. To encourage participation, some leading Folding@home groups have set up donation-led crypto communities, giving out currencies like Dogecoin each week based on contributions. Camaliot also rewards its top contributors with coupons.
As computer chips find their way into almost everything, Josh Smith, founder of CureCoin, a cryptocurrency rewarding Folding@home volunteers, sees an even brighter future for crowd-sourced science projects. “If we meet our high capacity goals, the domino effect on the future of our planet will be something that will never be forgotten,” he said.