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Time to fold Folding?

Updated on July 13, 2008
Is distributed computing best used to resolve climate change questions?
Is distributed computing best used to resolve climate change questions?

According to leading technology consultants Gartner Research, the number of personal computers in the world has exceeded one billion, with at least one quarter of them connected to broadband around the clock. These staggering numbers show that the amount of computing capacity as measured in wasted clock cycles is greater by orders of magnitude than all the supercomputers in the world put together. Most personal computers do absolutely nothing most of the time, as even some expert PC users are not aware that while engaged in processes such as emailing or typing text or even web surfing, their CPUs are functioning at just a mere fraction of their capacity. Let's not even mention the combined trillions of hours per year that are spent doing nothing more than running screensavers.

Distributed computing was created to take advantage of this massive computer power that goes completely unused. A distributed computing program is set up to carry on extremely complex computing on a wide variety of heterogeneous environments over network links of varying latencies and efficiencies. There are many biochemical programs set up to utilize distributed computing, such as Folding@home, Rosetta@home, Proteins@home and others. These programs use the spare clock cycles of your PC in the background even if you're currently using it, and perform a tiny subset of the massive calculations required to resolve various biological structural computations. These programs are truly invaluable as the information derived can help in developing effective medicines to fight serious ailments, and there is a very small, but active group of computer users who have downloaded the software necessary to have their own PCs execute their share of computations.

Not to diminish the noble effort that these biochemical programs represent, there is another much more pressing global problem that distributed computing must address, and it is not in the field of biochemistry.

As I write this it is just a couple of days until July and I'm looking out my window to the hillsides covered in... snow. "Folks who have lived in these here parts their whole lives long can't ever recall such a sight." This may well be the year without a summer, coming on the heels of the worst winter in memory, and at a time when the other end of the country is suffering from oppressive heat waves. Climate change is a reality and one that each and every person on the planet is going to have to deal with. It is no longer just a theoretical construct of interest only to academicians. Those same snow covered hills are also covered with pine trees: Dead ones. All killed by the pine beetle, an opportunistic bug which has taken advantage of the changing climate to devastate untold millions of acres of evergreen forest. From a macroecological standpoint that is a disaster as it can unlock more carbon release than all the industrial activity on the planet, but it is also a disaster from the microeconomic perspective as forestry jobs disappear and the regional economies clatter to a halt.

That is why everyone reading this should install, and current folders should switch to, This particular distributed computing project is designed "to improve our understanding of how sensitive our models are to small changes and also to things like changes in carbon dioxide and the sulphur cycle. This will allow us to explore how climate may change in the next century under a wide range of different scenarios. By using your computers, we will be able to improve our understanding of, and confidence in, climate change predictions more than would ever be possible using the supercomputers currently available to scientists."

There is no greater assistance we can provide to future generations than to assure them of a habitable planet, and becoming part of the distributed computing project is one extremely valuable step you can take right now.


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