IBM’s World Community Grid harnesses idle computing power for scientific research

IBM works to end coronavirus pandemic with AI.

The computing tasks necessary for scientific research require a massive amount of processing power. If researchers ran models on a single machine it would take hundreds of years to produce results. Fortunately, today’s technology has paved the way for several innovations that help speed up scientific research.

One of the cooler ones is called distributed computing. It relies on a network of idle devices provided by volunteer users and harnesses their computing power to complete resource-intensive tasks in a fraction of the time.

IBM’s World Community Grid app is an example of distributed computing. It’s a great way for people to help contribute to things like COVID-19 and cancer research without having to donate money.

Idling for Good

Typically, supporting researchers means contributing time or money to their efforts. For IBM’s World Community Grid project, that isn’t the case. Aside from signing up for an account and downloading an app, users don’t actually have to do anything. Their idle devices do all of the work.

Speaking of, the World Community Grid project works with computers as well as Android phones and tablets. iOS users are currently unable to participate.

Although volunteer computing has been around since the 1990s, it is gaining traction recently thanks to the global focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of this writing, the app has more than 785,000 volunteers donating their unused computing power.

Volunteers can choose to devote their resources to seven different healthcare research initiatives. They include projects focused on addressing COVID-19, cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS, microbiome immunity, and rainfall in Africa.

IBM corporate social responsibility manager Juan Hindo says, “World Community Grid is essentially a way to crowdsource big scientific problems, and enlist the help of volunteers to solve challenges in health and environmental research.”

How Does Distributed Computing Work?

The concept of distributed computing can be a difficult one to grasp. However, it isn’t as confusing as it might seem. Essentially, IBM’s World Community Grid app uses the spare computing power of your device to run virtual experiments in the background.

If researchers had to run every simulation on lab computers, it would take years of trial and error to complete them. By crowdsourcing computing power from volunteers’ devices, the research is finished in a fraction of the time.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. Researchers are able to complete their work far quicker and with fewer expenses. Volunteers, meanwhile, are able to participate in important research and don’t spend a dime to help out.

Take the World Community Grid’s Mapping Cancer Markers project for example. Researchers want to identify cancer indicators that can help doctors personalize treatment plans. They have collected millions of tissue samples from people around the world, including both healthy people and cancer patients.

“They’re essentially doing a massive data comparison exercise to compare the genetic profile of all these people in the hope of identifying factors that can say, for example, people with aggressive type of cancer X are more likely to have these biomarkers,” Hindo explains.

Unfortunately, processing those millions of data points requires a tremendous amount of computing power.

She adds, “Rather than trying to find a supercomputer or get more funding for computing capacity, [the researchers] bring us millions of calculations, and we distribute them out to our massive community of volunteers.”

When a user’s device is idle, the World Community Grid app starts running calculations. Once they are complete, it returns the results to the research teams.

How to Get Involved in the World Community Grid Project

As I write this sentence, my laptop is crunching data to identify cancer markers that could play a key role in developing treatments or finding a cure for the disease. IBM’s World Community Grid app is quietly running in the background.

There’s no noticeable change in performance. Window’s Task Manager tool shows that it is using 0.1 percent of my laptop’s CPU capacity and just under 30 MB of RAM. Compared to Google Chrome, that’s virtually nothing.

Getting started is as simple as downloading an app. Those who are interested can sign up through IBM’s World Community Grid website. Users then get an option to choose which projects they want to devote their spare computing power to. Once the app is downloaded, it automatically determines when there is enough extra power and will start running calculations.

The app only runs when a device is plugged in and is charged to at least 90 percent. On Android devices, it only downloads calculations and uploads results when the phone is connected to Wi-Fi, so it won’t chew through your data.

Hindo notes that the ideal time for the World Community Grid app to run is when your devices are charging overnight. Yes, this means you can literally be volunteering in your sleep. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

For those concerned about security, IBM is taking things very seriously. The app uses one folder to upload and download data but doesn’t access anything else on your device. Meanwhile, data sent and received from researchers doesn’t include any personally identifiable information.

What Happens Next?

IBM’s World Community Grid app is all about collaboration. That means volunteers receive updates about how their calculations are being used and whether they are yielding any results. Researchers keep volunteers up to date on their progress with periodic notes and blog posts.

Meanwhile, the entire World Community Grid is an open data project. In other words, all findings are made available to the public so the scientific community can benefit from any discoveries.

“I want people to feel empowered that they can do something productive—it’s a fairly unique way of supporting a cause they care about, like cancer research,” says Hindo. “Everyone’s familiar with ways of volunteering your time or donating your money, and this is a different type of volunteerism—all it takes is for you to download the app.”


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