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Thursday, 7 December, 2000, 22:02 GMT
Spare PCs put to work
man with computer
Distant scientists could be using this computer
By BBC Science's Toby Murcott

Millions of personal computers around the world are being used to crack some of the most difficult problems in science.

A report in the journal Science says that the vast majority of computers spend most of their time idle.

It says computer programmers are exploiting this by encouraging people to take part in huge international projects running programmes that make use of spare computing power.

So I decided to join this global computing revolution.

Alien life

I could be the one - the first person to discover signs of intelligent alien life.

I am not doing it by peering into the night sky, but by allowing my computer to search through data collected by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.


It works by breaking up a big problem into millions of tiny pieces

All I had to do was download a screensaver programme from the internet, and whenever I am not using my computer, the screensaver takes over and starts processing data.

The principle is known as distributive computing.

It works by breaking up a big problem into millions of tiny pieces and getting thousands of small computers to tackle each bit.

Volunteers

Such projects rely on volunteers allowing programmes to run on their computers when they are not using them.


A whole range of problems could be solved, from cracking computer codes to solving biological riddles

The authors of the Science report estimate that there are 300 million internet-connected PCs in the world standing idle for up to 90% of the time - formidable computing power just waiting to be used.

Scientific research has amassed huge amounts of data that will take conventional computers thousands of years to process.

By distributing it, the authors say a whole range of problems could be solved, from cracking computer codes to solving biological riddles.

They add that this allows large numbers of interested people to contribute to and learn more about scientific research.

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See also:

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