Ways to share spare CPU cycles

Seek aliens, fight cancer and solve puzzles by donating your spare CPU cycles to join a virtual supercomputer.

A network of hundreds of thousands of home computer users recently discovered a rare celestial object by donating their computers' downtime to a worthy cause.

The object is called a disrupted binary pulsar and is unique due to its relatively low magnetic field, according to a BBC report. The discovery was made by three computers (two in the United States and one in Germany) participating in the Einstein@Home distributed computing project. Einstein@Home harnesses a user's spare or unused computer processing cycles to compute raw data pulled from gravitational wave detectors. To participate all you have to do is run a screensaver that uses your computer's downtime.

The project is attempting to prove Einstein's theory that when celestial events such as exploding stars or colliding black holes occur, they create waves that alter space and time.

Einstein@Home is based on the BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) platform that hosts a variety of distributed computing projects. By volunteering your computer's downtime to distributed computing projects you can help fight cancer, monitor seismic activity, scan the stars for alien life or even crack encrypted Nazi messages.

If you'd like to spice up your screensaver and donate your time to an interesting cause, all you have to do is download BOINC's software and specify the project you'd like to join. Here are five distributed computing projects for you to consider.

Alien Hunters

Help UC Berkeley's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project as it scans the universe for intelligent life. Seti@Home is the original BOINC project that has been ongoing for nearly eleven years. Seti@Home participants will help process data from radio telescopes searching for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. These signals are not known to occur naturally, so their detection could indicate the presence of intelligent life.

If that sounds like fun, why not join close to 200,000 others who are searching for Vulcans, Wookies, and Martians? But make sure you only install Seti@Home only on computers you own. In late 2009, a an Arizona school district fired its IT director when the board discovered the director had installed Seti@Home software on the school district's computers.

Earthquake Detector

The Quake-Catcher Network uses accelerometers found in laptops to create an early detection system for earthquakes around the globe.

To participate you need a Mac laptop from 2006 or later, an IBM or Lenovo ThinkPad laptop from 2003 or later, or a desktop computer with a USB sensor (you can buy one from QCN).

You can also use QCN software to donate your spare computer cycles to QCN's interactive educational software. Check out QCN's Google Map to see recent seismic activity the network has detected. QCN was launched in 2008 and is only available for Windows and Mac users.

Find the God Particle

The European Organization for Nuclear Research's (CERN) Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is also looking for help.

It is hoped the LCH will help answer some of the most mysterious questions of the universe such as the nature of Dark Matter and the Higgs Boson particle (the so-called God particle).

If you want to help out, CERN has two experiments that need your computer power: SixTrack and Garfield. Both projects will help scientists study the behavior of light and gas particles. You can find out more information at the LHC@Home Website.

Crack the Enigma

History buffs might love the chance to help break an encrypted Nazi message from World War II that has long been considered uncrackable.

The message was encrypted using a special Nazi device called the Enigma machine. These devices helped protect German secrets from Allied forces. The fictional capture of an Enigma machine was the basis of the film U-571.

Using the power of networked computers, the Enigma@Home project has already used up the equivalent of more than 5000 years of time dedicated to cracking these codes. Originally, three messages were targeted, but two have already been cracked. You can read about the decoded messages here and here.

If you want to help, there's still one last message to decode, according to the project's Website. So get involved while you still can.

Fight Cancer

Join the University of Toronto in its fight against cancer by helping scientists understand the functions of cancer-related proteins. Progress in this area could help with the development of cancer-fighting drugs.

The U of T's Help Conquer Cancer project is part of the World Computing Grid sponsored by IBM, a project similar to BOINC. The aim of the WCG is to use computing power to help solve problems that will benefit people all over the globe. HCC was launched in 2007 and on average HCC participants average 53 years worth of computations every day, according to the HCC Website.

To participate sign up for the WCG first, download WCG software and then specify the project you want your spare cycles to go to.

Your computer's idle time can do a lot of good or just to help out with fun and interesting projects. If the projects above haven't sparked your eye, check out the project lists for BOINC and WCG.

For more about distributing computing projects, check out PC World's "12 Worthy Causes Seek Your Spare PC Cycles."

Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@idanpaul).

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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