September 8, 2000


Bellevue, WASH. — Kevin Maney reported for USA Today that Ron Gilbert and Shelley Day, who co-founded and recently left Humongous Entertainment, are sitting in a Starbucks slurping caffeine. The two have been pleasantly avoiding telling about their secret new venture. But toward the end, Gilbert veers into an unrelated topic that, to lots of tech people, is more heartwarming than a Benji movie.

This would be community computing, a new model of computing that can be seen in full bloom with the SETI @ home project.

SETI @ home, pronounced “setty at home,” was launched in April 1999. SETI is short for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, the project that uses super-sensitive antennae to listen in space for radio signals that indicate life is out there. The “at home” part refers to the fact that you – yes, you! – could use the PC in your den to find an alien.

And if you did, notes SETI @ home participant Tom Saleh, “You’d be on all the talk shows.”

The technology that makes SETI @ home work seems to point to a new model for solving gigantic computing problems – by getting help from millions of individual PCs spread all over the world. It even raises the possibility that, say, a college student might be able to make a few extra bucks by selling his or her PC’s excess processing cycles.

Any monstrous computing problem could take advantage of this community computing model, especially those that might do some public good, such as analyzing the human genome. A non-profit entity might seek volunteers to contribute computing power, which is what happens with SETI @ home. Or this might evolve into a kind of market for computer processing cycles. A company might bid for cycles on a spot market, which in turn would buy idle PC time from college students, companies or you or me. There’s even at least one company, Popular Power, which has sprung up to try to facilitate such exchanges.

So here’s how SETI @ home, which is not actually affiliated with SETI, works.

SETI supports an operation called Project SERENDIP, which collects data about space radio signals from the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. The idea is that if there are other beings in the universe, they probably watch TV. Or at least they do something that would generate radio signals, which would zoom through space and eventually reach us. The telescope searches the skies, sucking in galactic amounts of information. The data has to be analyzed to see if it’s unusual enough to be a sign of intelligent life. There is more data than the project’s computers could possibly crunch.

The solution, cooked up by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, is groundbreaking. Every PC is a mountain of wasted resources. A PC can do hundreds of millions of operations a second. Most of the time you’re asking it to do hardly anything. Often it’s idle. SETI @ home makes use of that.

If you want to participate, you go to SETI @ home’s Web site ( http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/ ) and download a piece of software that acts a lot like a screensaver. Then, when you’re connected to the Internet but not actively using your computer, your PC will download a 300 kilobyte chunk of data, work on it, send it back, go get more, and so on. Like a screensaver, the SETI @ home work stops when you start doing something. You can even use it as an actual screensaver and watch a graphic of what it’s doing.

If your PC finds something, supposedly you’ll be notified and will get credit. “I always thought that if you found an alien, you should get to name it,” Gilbert says.

The popularity of SETI @ home has blown away everyone involved. Estimates at first were that maybe 100,000 people would do this. More than 2 million PCs are running the software. People like the idea of helping to look for aliens. Saleh, chief technology officer at Worlds.com, started by putting it on his home PC. Now he’s got it running on 50 monster Sun Microsystems machines at Worlds.com. “They’re just grinding away at it between events,” he says.

The computers running SETI @ home, all linked by the Net, run as a single gigantic computer. The power of all these machines, SETI @ home reports, equals 12 teraflops, beating some of the fastest supercomputers, which can only do 3 teraflops. Even if you have no idea what a teraflop is, this is obviously impressive.

The possibilities are staggering. It seems that all the computers in the world, all linked by the Internet, could in their idle moments combine into a single super-duper computer. Anyone could tap into it. It would be as if there was one immense community computer.

“It’s a great program,” Gilbert says, smiling. “As long as it’s used for good, not for evil.” Keep in mind that he has spent most of his career making kids’ computer games.

On the other hand, Gilbert has a point. Our government tries to keep our most powerful supercomputers out of the hands of rival nations, which we fear will use the machines to model atomic weapons. What if they can buy that power on the spot market?

Beyond that, community computing seems to feed right into the predictions of author George Dyson. He says that someday computers will link to each other in a way that creates enough power to form intelligence, at which point the computers will become the alien beings we’ve been looking for.

The computers might compete with humans – maybe even outdo us. And then, when I want to hear about a hot start-up, I’ll find myself in a sunny Starbucks sharing cappuccinos with a couple of laptops.


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