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Volunteer Citizen Scientists Make BOINC Supercomputer

It’s an exciting break from day-to-day emails or Web-surfing to check out BOINC and say, “Oh, look, the computer’s searching for pulsars now.”

I am typing this on what looks like a perfectly normal laptop computer. I’m at home, comfortable; I have music on. It’s a calm evening. But behind this normalcy, there are larger projects afoot.

My laptop is combing the skies for gamma-ray pulsars. It is running high-resolution weather forecasting models that could account for local rains in sub-Saharan Africa. It is predicting the structures of a range of proteins involved in the human microbiome and even in the coronavirus. Yet were it not for writing this, I might never have noticed it was doing those things.

You have likely heard of “crowdfunding” on certain Websites like GoFundMe, a fundraising model where instead of asking one person or company for a large sum of money, a fundraiser will ask a lot of people for a small amount of money. The small amounts add up.

My computer is some years old but reasonably capable, so I’m not running it especially hard to type this and play my music. This means right at this moment I own more computing power than I need. BOINC (“Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing”) uses the excess processor power to run scientific simulations. It is clever enough to vary that consumption depending on what I’m doing, so with the right settings for my computer and my habits, I can generally work as though BOINC isn’t there.

I have been running BOINC on various devices since 2014, and in that time, my devices have done everything from searching for cancer markers to sifting radio-telescope data for signs of extraterrestrial life.

BOINC projects “crowdsource” things besides money. Some science projects (broadly called “citizen science”) crowdsource labor for their data collection. But what if a scientist needs a supercomputer? Well, they can crowdsource that too! The concept is called “volunteer computing” and relies on the unused processor power of everyday computers.

In my experience, BOINC does take some initial attention and adjustment. For instance, my computer ran quite hot until I determined how to reduce the maximum processor power BOINC was drawing. This is not a program to set up and first leave running while you go away on a long weekend.BOINC is simple to use as a volunteer, even without a lot of computer experience. I am certainly not a computer scientist and cannot remember ever having to consult BOINC’s user’s manual.

However, those kinds of settings are simple to change, and once set, they should be fine to leave more static. The program won’t interfere with your personalized use of your computer if you set some preferences. Want it to never draw more than 20% of the processor? It can do that. Want it to automatically shut off when you’re running your favorite game? It can do that too.

BOINC is a flexible and user-friendly way to contribute to science and bring “big science” into your life. While you could just leave BOINC to run mostly unviewed, you can also periodically open the user view and see what your computer is up to. Many of the projects have public-friendly Websites that the program links to when your computer is doing work for them. It’s an exciting break from day-to-day emails or Web-surfing to check out BOINC and say, “Oh, look, the computer’s searching for pulsars now.”

If you’d like to learn more technical specifics about BOINC, or if you’d like more information about the specific research projects I referred to, please visit the Websites below. Please also consider donating some of your unused computing power to a science project you find important!

https://boinc.berkeley.edu/ — BOINC Homepage. This is the place to download the software if you want to donate computing power!

https://boinc.berkeley.edu/trac/wiki/VolunteerComputing — “What Is ‘Volunteer Computing’?”

https://boinc.berkeley.edu/grid_paper_04.pdf — “BOINC: A System for Public-Resource Computing and Storage” by David P. Anderson. A broad technical paper covering BOINC.