Supercomputers are an essential part of modern science. By analyzing numbers and performing calculations that take eons for us humans to complete ourselves, they help us do things that would otherwise be impossible, such as predicting hurricanes’ flight paths, simulating nuclear disasters, or modeling how experimental drugs affect human cells. But this computing power comes at a price — quite literally. Supercomputer-based research is expensive. It is not uncommon for research institutions to pay upwards of $1,000 for one hour of supercomputer use, and sometimes more, depending on the hardware required.
But recently, instead of relying on large and expensive supercomputers, more and more scientists are turning to a different method for their number-processing needs: distributed supercomputing. You may have heard about this before. Rather than relying on a single central computer to perform a particular task, this outsourcing computing method draws computing power from a distributed network of volunteers, usually by running special programs on home computers or smartphones. Individually, these volunteer computers aren’t particularly powerful, but if you put enough of them together, their collective power could easily beat that of any mainframe supercomputer—often for a fraction of the cost.
In the past few years, these kinds of peer-to-peer computing projects have seen something of a renaissance, and as the processing power of our devices continues to improve, it looks like the next big thing in science could be the smartphone in your pocket.
The concept of voluntary computing has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s—when personal computers made their way into a large number of American households—that it really began to emerge.
In 1999, researchers at UC Berkeley and Stanford launched two highly publicized and widely adopted projects: SETI @ homewhich encouraged PC users to sign up and recruit their own CPUs to analyze radio telescope data, and Collapse @ homewhich used that computing power to fold complex proteins.
Both projects had huge successes with the public. SETI@Home has actually seen a huge wave of initial interest that has overwhelmed project servers and Cause frequent accidents. But after this massive success, interest eventually settled in, waned, and the project’s creators eventually led to it Close it after 20 years.
However, Folding @ home did not meet the same fate. Near the end of the SETI@home project, the opportunity for Folding@home to shine appeared: COVID-19 outbreak. Soon after the pandemic, more than a million new volunteers joined the project, effectively creating what amounts to the world’s fastest supercomputer – one more powerful than the top 500 traditional supercomputers combined. Their function was simple but useful in breaking down some of the more complex diseases, including COVID-19: fold proteins.
Proteins are essential to understanding how, for example, a virus interacts with and contaminates the human immune system. In their original state, the proteins are in a folded form, unfolding, for example, to bind and inhibit the body’s defenses. To design treatments, scientists run simulations to look at the protein’s evolution sequence – but it’s a resource-intensive and time-consuming process. This is where Folding@home comes in. It not only significantly lowers the cost, but also speeds up development for months and even years in a few cases.
Once Folding@home volunteers install a piece of the software, their machines take part of a larger task and process it in the background. The results are sent back to the research group’s laboratories via the cloud, where they are compiled and reviewed.
The results have been on several occasions groundbreaking. In 2021, scientists were able to discover why variants of COVID-19 are more devastating, thanks in large part to Folding@home’s increase in computing power. In addition, he helped develop a COVID-19 antiviral drug, which is now moving toward clinical trials. Moreover, Folding@home has also facilitated a number of important hacks for other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer.
Without crowdsourcing computing, Dr. Gregory R. making it economically unviable for us or anyone else.” He added, “The power of computing is a game changer.”
Interestingly, projects like Folding@home aren’t the only way scientists are harnessing the power of smartphones. Sometimes the initial computing power isn’t particularly important, and researchers simply need a wider range of information – information only thousands of people scattered around the world can collect and present.
For example, in March of this year, the European Space Agency launched its perfect , which seeks to improve weather applications by making creative use of the future of GPS within people’s Android phones. You see, whenever your phone connects to satellites to navigate, they respond with the time and their location, and the phones calculate where they are based on how long each message took to arrive. The time taken for each signal can better inform scientists of the characteristics of the atmosphere, such as how much water vapor it contains, which in turn can help predict rainfall forecasts more accurately. But, the ESA team can only perform this activity from many locations.
Camaliot allows Android phone owners from all over the world to contribute to the ESA project. It repeatedly tests satellite connectivity from people’s phones and sends the response data it collects back to the ESA base.
With Camaliot, the European Space Agency hopes to collect data from regions such as Africa, which are of high interest from an ionosphere standpoint and which are not well covered by the agency’s geospatial-limited central methods, Vicente Navarro, ESA’s Science Directorate and is leading the Camaliot campaign, according to for Digital Trends.
But the question remains: why would anyone lend their device power for free? In addition to high electricity bills, this also affects the performance and health of your phones and computers. But even with these downsides, for many like Jeffrey Brice, a sound designer who has been folding proteins since 2007, the answer is rather simple: do good.
“I’ve been interested in cryptocurrency for a while, but using the same hardware at Folding@home seemed like a better, more ethical and charitable use of the equipment,” Price said.
For others, it is a source of passive income. To encourage participation, some of the leading Folding@home groups have set up donation-led crypto communities, which distribute coins like Dogecoin each week depending on contributions. Similarly, Camaliot rewards its major shareholders with coupons.
With computer chips on the way to just about everything, Josh Smith, founder of CureCoin, a cryptocurrency rewarding Folding@home volunteers, predicts a brighter future for crowdsourcing science projects. “If we achieve our lofty goals in terms of our capabilities, the ripple effect for the future of our planet will be something that will never be forgotten,” he said.