Contrary to what some Luddites say, some Internet users are looking for more than sex and money when they go online. Yes, there's more than spam and porn and sites like Blogcritics on the Internet — there are also projects where you can use your computer to do good deeds, to put your computer where your mouth and heart are. For example, my computer:
- Helps search for E.T.
- Assists researchers with their work on finding a cure for AIDS.
- Assists efforts to use proteins to fight cancer and HIV.
Essentially the idea is this: your computer, through networking, can help to solve large-scale problems by participating in projects which utilize the combined resources of many computers to accomplish tasks that are too computationally intensive to be solved by one. The information can then be shared with project coordinators who will collect the information and give your computer more data to be crunched. And it works with both PCs and Macs.
SETI: Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence
The most widely known of these projects is SETI. About a million people have downloaded software which allows their computers to participate in this giant science experiment where computers examine and analyze information from radio telescopes. At certain intervals the computer will submit the information analyzed and be given a new packet of information to examine. This can all be set to occur automatically without any needed work or skills by the computer user.
Most people have an individual account but SETI allows you to work together in teams. I usually work on teams with a private community to which I belong. Working together as a team has three advantages: It can spark some competition for a good cause, lead to more community, and is good public relations.
Last year SETI changed its software to a site that is more cumbersome and has its detractors. I used to run SETI for another team and stopped running SETI after it switched programs. But a sense of curiosity (what if the site helps to find a species and I wasn’t part of the effort?) and guilt (if the project fails and I did not help, I’d feel terrible) helped spark me to rejoin the effort.
There is a good benefit to SETI’s new software, BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). Several other projects besides SETI@home are using BOINC. BOINC lets you participate in more than one project, and it lets you specify what fraction of your computer time should go to each project.