Computers help cure AIDS in spare time

Anyone with a computer can now help scientists find a cure for diseases.

And it won’t cost anything, other than sharing a home or business Windows PC when it’s not busy.

Last week IBM launched the World Community Grid in a global humanitarian effort to apply unused computer power to help researchers unlock genetic codes that underlie diseases like AIDS, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Each computer requires software that can be downloaded at and installed like any other program. It quietly runs in the background when you are using your PC but it can also chug away on computational tasks sent in via the Internet.

IBM donated the hardware, software, technical services and expertise to build the infrastructure for World Community Grid, and provides hosting, maintenance and support.

Computer grid technology was used to make the process as unobtrusive as possible. Most PC users rarely use their computer’s maximum power. It works by splitting a large project into smaller parts that each computer calculates and sends back. The program can be stopped or removed from a computer.

Each computer’s progress can be monitored and the World Community Grid website can help contributors find other groups to join in as a team and track a friendly point competition on total calculations.

The first endeavour of the World Community Grid is the human proteome folding project, which is sponsored by the Institute for Systems Biology, an internationally known non-profit research institute dedicated to the study and application of systems biology.

It hopes to identify the proteins that make up the human proteome and, in doing so, better understand the causes and potential cures for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.

A screensaver on member computers shows the project’s progress.

Robin Willner, IBM’s director of corporate community relations, said IBM spent millions of dollars getting the project going and paid particular attention to maximizing security. “We have an IBM team of ethical hackers constantly checking the grid for security weaknesses,” said Willner.

She said that IBM’s initiative in assembling an effective advisory board will give the project enough momentum to become a success.

The board includes members of prestigious scientific, research and charitable organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Markle Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, Oxford University, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Program.

It is expected to oversee five to six projects a year and one of the qualifying criteria is that the results of these massive computing projects must be shared.

“There are over 650 million computers worldwide,” said Willner. “Just a few million of them can surpass the most powerful supercomputers.”

Only computers operating with Windows can join in now, but Linux-equipped PCs will soon be able to as well.

United Devices, another grid computing company, is helping IBM aggregate the idle power of participating PCs and laptops into its worldwide grid.

The two companies previously created the Smallpox Research Grid, that assembled the power of two million computers from 226 countries to speed the analysis of some 35 million drug molecules in the search for a treatment for smallpox.

“We did research in four months that would have taken 20 years for a supercomputer to do,” said Dr. Grant McFadden, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Western Ontario, who was involved with the project.

“I walked away quite impressed.”

Grid computing is not new. The seti@home project has been connecting public computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). But unlike the simple yes or no answer that home computers send back to SETI, the scientific work in the World Community Grid may be more complicated and challenging.

“This is not the most efficient way to do grid computing as the data that moves around between computers on the Internet has to be broken down in small chunks so any computer can work with it, and then reassemble it later,” said Paul Lu, associate professor at the University of Alberta computer science department.

“But it’s a nice idea.”

“The real value of this project is the public visibility of how much computing power is out there to help solve problems,” said Dr. Michael Bower, chairman of the computer science department at the University of Western Ontario.

“It helps the world understand what computer research is all about.” Autor: Steve Makris
Fuente: can

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