Android users can now boast of another capability on their smartphones and tablets: fighting AIDS and discovering new stars.
That's because, for the first time, owners of Android-based smartphones and tablets can now "donate" the surplus computing power of their devices to science. With the additional processing power from smartphones, researchers from IBM's World Community Grid and the Einstein@Home project will accelerate their search for medical cures and for unknown pulsars.
Using what is called volunteer computing, these scientists already tap into a pool of donated computer processing power to conduct their simulations and data analysis. Volunteer computing enables people and organisations to contribute toward scientific progress with little effort, and provides researchers with what are essentially very powerful, globally distributed supercomputers.
Until now, volunteer computing has used traditional computers such as desktops and laptops. However, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have become more powerful, energy efficient, and numerous. There are now about 900 million Android devices, and their total computing power exceeds that of the largest conventional supercomputers.
To allow these devices to participate, volunteer computing software developed at the University of California, Berkeley - called Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) - has just been updated. Owners of devices that use Android 2.3 or higher can now participate in citizen science efforts by downloading BOINC from the Google Play site, then choose the projects to which they want to contribute.
To preserve battery life, minimize recharge time, and avoid the use of allotted data on cellphone plans, smartphones and tablets running BOINC will only perform calculations when they are being charged, when the battery life is above 90%, and when they are connected to wireless local area networks (WiFi). While these are the default settings when BOINC for Android is downloaded, the rules governing its use can be further customized by users.
The first World Community Grid (WCG) project available for Android computing is the FightAIDS@Home project conducted out of the Olson Laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute. World Community Grid volunteers can use their phones and tablets to help the Scripps team search for new candidate drugs to block enzymes that the deadly AIDS virus depends on. The Olson Laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute is using computational methods to identify new candidate drugs that have the right shape and chemical characteristics to block HIV protease, HIV integrase, or HIV reverse transcriptase, the three enzymes that the deadly AIDS virus needs to function and spread.
The WCG team will be adding additional World Community Grid projects to the Android app in the future, and is also investigating options to expand to other mobile platforms. World Community Grid has been used to facilitate research into clean energy, clean water and healthy foodstuffs, as well as cures for cancer, malaria and other diseases.
This development makes sense because of the rapid rise of mobile computing. When World Community Grid was launched in 2004, an average desktop computer might have had a 2 GHz processor and 256 MB of RAM. Nine years later, many mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are just as powerful.
And there are a lot of them. There will be nearly 2 billion smartphones in use worldwide by the end of 2013, and the tablet market is growing rapidly as well, with tens of millions already in use. Android is the most popular operating system, which means that over a million new Android devices are activated every day. These mobile devices represent a huge and unprecedented amount of computing power in the hands - quite literally - of individuals all over the world.
These devices have transformed peoples' lives, as many readers will know from experience. But now, these powerful portable devices can help save lives by accelerating vital research into areas such as disease, energy, and the environment.
The World Community Grid team has worked hard to ensure that volunteers can donate mobile device processing time as easily and unobtrusively as they donate computer processing time. Because mobile devices are designed for portability and extended battery life, the app is designed to minimize the impact that World Community Grid will have. By default, the app will only run calculations when the device is plugged in and charging - for example, overnight - and will only transmit data over WiFi (settings are configurable).
One of the first projects to be enabled for Android-based volunteer computing is the Einstein@Home search for unknown radio pulsars led by the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hannover, Germany. Android users will power an application that analyzes data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the world's largest radio telescope. The application searches for radio pulsars by detecting their pulsed electromagnetic wave emission.
Pulsars are very compact stellar remnants with extreme physical properties compared to normal matter. Some of them tightly orbit companion stars, providing unique test beds for Einstein's general theory of relativity. However, the sensitivity to discover new pulsars is limited by the computing power available. More computing power will accelerate the Einstein@Home search and will make it more sensitive. This work helps scientists understand how stars and the universe evolve, and enables volunteers to discover new radio pulsars with their Android devices.
Be one of the first to participate in an entirely new phenomenon: mobile volunteer computing. Put your phone or tablet to good use. If you are not already a member join World Community Grid now, or if you are already a member, download the app on your Android device.