Many people donate spare CPU cycles to worthy causes, but there are long-term concerns, says Cliff Saran.
Thanks to peer-to-peer technology and the computing grid, people all over the world can donate their PCs' free time to a good cause. It is easy to sign up: simply download a special screensaver which performs computational work when you are not working on the keyboard or the mouse.
Two years ago I joined one such scheme run by peer-to-peer specialist United Devices and the Department of Chemistry at Oxford University. By signing up I was allowing my PC to be used to help identify possible molecules that would help researchers develop a drug to cure cancer.
So far so good. But the project only lasted a year, and the Department of Chemistry was having trouble finding a sponsor to provide the massive amounts of data storage required to proceed with the second phase in the research.
I did not think anything of this and since the screensaver on my PC continued to display models of molecules, I assumed it was still running computation work for the cancer research project.
My suspicion was only aroused a few weeks ago when I noticed that the US Department of Defense is now a named sponsor on the screensaver. As far as I was concerned, I had not signed up to anything involving the US government.
Oxford University's cancer research project had been replaced by a smallpox project run by the US Department of Defense. As far as I knew, the World Health Organisation had declared smallpox eradicated in 1980. But now, thanks to the US' war on terrorism, my PC had been seconded by the US government.
This raises a moral dilemma. I should be the one who decides which worthy projects to support. There are many people who would think twice about giving their PCs' free time to genetic engineering or embryology. And who is to say this vast resource of computing power could not be exploited in a more sinister manner? It is easy to imagine how it could be misused by organisations hooking into the peer-to-peer computing grid.
Short of disabling the screensaver, there is no easy way to opt out. Ed Hubbard, chief executive at United Devices assured me that his company notifies everyone by e-mail whenever there is a new project. But in the long run, I am concerned about who will control this vast computing resource. For the time being, Hubbard said, "People have to trust that we will run projects that are good for humanity."
What do you think?
Should you be given the choice of how free computer time on your PC is harnessed? Tell us in an e-mail >> CW360.com reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the website. Please state if your answer is not for publication.
Cliff Saran is managing editor (technology) for Computer Weekly.