In sum, distributed computing means sharing the computational workload of a project over many computers via the internet (though I suppose it would work within any sort of multi-CPU network). And there’s a few dozen projects of this nature that you yourself can contribute to with your own machine that run on a few different platforms, and are mostly quite worthy.
Joining something like SETI@home — in which your bot crunches numbers from radio telescopes hunting for aliens — used to be a fairly why not? thing. Computers in the old days weren’t terribly good at power-saving. That is, when your computer was on, it was 100-percent on whether you are using it or not. So, if you were going to leave your computer on for any reason, you might as well be finding the aliens.
Now, however, newer computers are quite good at saving power. So, when you’re not using your turned-on computer, it’ll power down to save electricity. Nonetheless, many of these projects are hardly frivolous and worth dropping a small bit of extra wattage in the interests of, say, curing HIV or predicting earthquakes.
A few of Motherboard’s favorites:
Perhaps the most well-known distributed computing project, SETI@home uses a number of radio telescopes in the world to peer throughout space for alien signals. Because of the vast amount of interference that our own human signals cause, it takes a vast amount of computing power to sift through. The hibernation of the Allen Telescope Array, SETI’s biggest and most-dedicated asset, doesn’t appear to have effected SETI’s overall computational needs and @home is right now operational. No aliens so far.
Meanwhile, FightAIDS@home, which models new canididate protease inhibitors (HIV blockers) to be used in therapies, has had some success. In 2010, the project ID’d a pair of compounds that open up an entirely new class of HIV-fighting drugs. Which is a thing important to people suffering right now—on planet Earth.
OK, this sounds boring as all hell: studying why protiens fold incorrectly. But, the answer to that question is vital, misfolding is key to “Alzheimer’s, Mad Cow (BSE), CJD, ALS, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s disease, and many Cancers and cancer-related syndromes.” folding@home is currently the most-powerful distributed computing network that exists. Sign up here.
This is pretty nuts. So some newer computers — Macs and Lenovos — have Sudden Motion Sensors or Active Protection Systems in them meant to protect your hard drive in case you drop you laptop or whatever. The network simply tasks the information collected by those sensors into detecting and analyzing earthquakes. As for your location, the system can either make a rough guess based on the local of the server your IP address is connected to, or you can self-report. Sign up here.