Science is infinite in its capacity. Humans are not. And the volume of data needed to do something like find life in the galaxy, or cure disease, is overwhelming. That’s where we come in.
Years ago, when I was a bright-eyed college student, I set up an unused laptop to analyze radio signals in the search for extraterrestrial life. Through UC Berkeley’s groundbreaking SETI at Home project, people all over the world were able to participate in the search for alien life, just by donating their processing time.
I can’t tell you if I ever found alien life, though that laptop worked for SETI for almost a decade, but I did play a tiny part in the search for it. That feeling was almost addictive — and with 5.2 million global participants, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in that.
In March of this year, SETI at Home stopped sending work out to users, and two decades of would-be explorers exhaled in bittersweet pride. In a project update, the SETI@home team said they had reached a point of “diminishing returns.” The staggering amount of data they collected in the 21 years it ran will now be turned into usable research and, eventually, a scientific paper.
The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC!) was created to manage the SETI@Home project, but has since become the foundation for distributed research in astronomy, AI, astrophysics, climate predictions, cryptography, nanoscience, molecular biology, and a whole bunch of other, incredibly interesting projects you can help with.
And totally should help with. Because it’s easy, it’s fun, and it makes a difference.
Outside of the BOINC ecosystem, there are a dozen more, equally powerful and world-changing research projects taking place.
Back in April, Borderlands 3 included a simple (but surprisingly difficult, if you’re me) block puzzle as a diversion for players tired of shooting spiderants, which helped McGill University map human gut biome.
Folding at Home (which has been around since 2000) utilizes CPUs, GPUs, and even PlayStations to simulate protein dynamics. And those dynamics tell researchers more about Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease, cancer, and of course, COVID-19.
Folding at Home has now focused its considerable, distributed power on the pandemic, and is screening for potential new drug treatments, in partnership with Covid Moonshot. When you participate, you can watch the research progress in real time, and track what you personally have contributed to the cause.
You should go do that, too. Speaking of making a difference.
Recently, the persistent-world MMORPG, Eve Online, set its 300,000 monthly users to the task of categorizing cells. Those categorized cells led to a better understanding of how COVID-19 works.
Those cells would have taken 36 years for researchers to categorize without the help of intrepid gamers. Through Project Discovery, the work took months. Eve smartly gamified the work, giving players unique rewards and higher ranks. Competitive science.
Citizen computing has been around a long time. But it’s never felt quite as important as now, with a worldwide pandemic whose end is nowhere in sight and a global population who carry supercomputers in the palms of their hands.
Go play something.