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IBM backs public research grid

IBM and top scientific research organizations are joining forces in a humanitarian effort to tap the unused power of millions of computers and help solve complex social problems.
As seen in this screenshot, the World Community Grid's desktop console lets users monitor progress on a protein-folding project, and see a representation of the protein molecule itself.
As seen in this screenshot, the World Community Grid's desktop console lets users monitor progress on a protein-folding project, and see a representation of the protein molecule itself.World Community Grid
/ Source: Reuters

IBM and top scientific research organizations are joining forces in a humanitarian effort to tap the unused power of millions of computers and help solve complex social problems.

The World Community Grid seeks to tap the underutilized power of computers belonging to individuals and businesses worldwide and channel it into selected medical and environmental research programs.

Volunteers are asked to download a program to their computers that runs when the machine is idle and reaches out to request data to contribute to research projects.

Organisers say the grid could help unlock genetic codes that underlie diseases like AIDS and HIV, Alzheimer’s or cancer, improve forecasting of natural disasters and aid studies to protect the world’s food and water supply.

The massive volunteer project was unveiled Tuesday by Sam Palmisano, the chief executive officer of International Business Machines Corp., along with U.N. officials, researchers from the Mayo Clinic, Oxford University and South Africa, and others.

“This is not just a project for techno-geeks,” said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with the research firm Illuminata of Nashua, N.H., who was briefed on the scope of the plan.

The project is designed to handle up to 10 million participants, or more, if demand is greater, IBM said. Details can be found at the project's Web site.

A way to contribute
“People really do want to contribute. Not everyone can contribute with dollars,” said Linda Sanford, an IBM executive vice president. “This kind of project gives people a way to do just that. They can decide how much to participate.”

The effort is not without its risks.

In particular, the voluntary undertaking could run foul of computer administrators already struggling to keep a tight rein on network security policies in order to ward off viruses.

IBM is lending its name in part to ward off such challenges by seeking to garner top-level business backing for what until now has been largely a grassroots movement to harness the latent power of machines to do good.

“We are looking for the individual, not the institution, per se, to contribute,” Sanford said. “(Companies) will let their employees know when they can participate.”

At an event at New York City’s Rockefeller University, IBM’s Palmisano was to describe the initial research push and introduce some 16 members of the World Community Grid Advisory Board, which will evaluate proposals for future research.

Proteomes and pollution
Board member Sibusiso Sibisi of South Africa sees potential for agricultural climate research and pollution control to protect workers in his country’s mines.

Sibisi, president of the government-backed Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, an organization of 2,000 public-interest science researchers, says such research might never occur if his organization needed to pay for supercomputer-scale computing capacity.

“We will be looking at the sort of projects that one can parcel out into small components,” Sibisi said.

The first research will be into Human Proteome Folding, an effort to identify the genetic structure of proteins that can cause diseases. There will be three to five research projects a year, Sanford said.

Project's history
The stage was set for the World Community Grid last year during a distributed-computing study of smallpox, which yielded more than 40 molecules that could be used in future treatments for the disease. That project was hosted by Grid.org, which has acted as a clearing house for grid computing projects. Grid.org has 3 million participants.

Both Grid.org and the World Community Grid use distributed-computing technology developed by United Devices. "This is just the beginning," said Ed Hubbard, president and founder of United Devices. Hubbard said IBM's participation serves as "a huge endorsement of the model and what can be done with this kind of grid."

The project also owes a debt to SETI @ home, which in the 1990s first popularized the notion that PC users could donate computer time for radio telescope astronomy data analysis via the Internet. The SETI project, which sifts through radio data looking for potential signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, is considered the world's largest distributed-computing project with 5.25 million users.

This report includes information from MSNBC's Alan Boyle.