Sunday , June 16 2024
By working together, people can have their computers do good deeds.

Putting Your Computer Where Your Mouth Is

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.

All three projects are forms of grid computing, which is also sometimes known as distributed computing.

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.

World Community Grid

The second project I work with is for the World Community Grid. There are two main efforts worked on with this endeavor. FightAIDS@Home crunches data to help determine what is needed to find a cure for AIDS. The second, the Human Proteome Folding Project, analyzes collections of protein to determine if they can be used to help fight disease.


This project examines three-dimensional shapes of proteins with the hope they may lead to cures for major human diseases, including cancer. As with these other projects this could take years if done on a single computer. This time can be reduced, ideally, to months by having many people’s computers working on it at the same time.

Why do I do it?

Personally I have my computers set up this way because I want to fight AIDS and cancer. Who doesn’t? If my computer can help in any way I want to do it. My dad died of complications from melanoma, a particularly lethal form of skin cancer. Dad was a fighter and an explorer and his way of dealing with problems was to arm himself with more knowledge. Education is power.

When dad was diagnosed with cancer he took two steps that summed up the kind of guy he was. First, he got all the books he could find on skin cancer and armed himself with as much knowledge as possible. Hey, it was worth a try. Second, he agreed to an experimental procedure that was intended to stop the cancer. Instead it shut down his system and he died.

He put his life on the line to help find a cure for cancer. I figure the least I can do is use my computer resources to help fight cancer in my own way. I consider it a nice way to honor my father and others like him who fall victim to diseases like cancer and AIDS. Projects like these are a great way to marry goals, ideas and dreams — be they curing cancer, AIDS, or finding extraterrestrials.

I have set up three unofficial teams, one for each of the projects I mention here. For details email me at sbutki at Depending on the interest level I may set up a separate email list for the projects.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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