Citizen Science

Save the Planet with Your Old Phone

There may be an asteroid heading our way — you could help find it. There may be potential treatments for Aids, Covid-19 or cancer — you could help identify them.

When Buzz Aldrin guided himself, and Neil Armstrong, to the surface of the moon on July, 20th, 1969, he was aided by a computer that was the first such device built with integrated circuits and, unsurprisingly, was the state of the art at the time.

That was over 50 years ago, so of course, you would expect computers to have got better. But how much? Ten times more powerful, 100 times, a 1000 times, perhaps. Maybe you’d be surprised to know that the smartphone in your pocket is 100,000 times more powerful than Aldrin’s computer.

Having a phone that is so much more powerful than the computer that got the first humans onto the Moon feels like quite an achievement. Although a more up-to-date estimation of the power of the smartphone comes from Samsung: in 2020 they reckoned that a modern smartphone is more capable than a modern laptop.

So, if you hear people talk about the ‘supercomputer’ in your pocket, they’re not certainly not exaggerating by Aldrin and Armstrong’s standards but, even given the power of modern technology, it’s not too much of a stretch.

The power of the unused phone

The thing is that it’s not only the phone in your pocket that has that computing potential, so does the old one that you, and millions of other people like you, have lying around unused in a drawer.

There are over 3 billion smartphones in the world (so Google tells me), so how many unused ones are there? I would be willing to bet that most people who own a smartphone also still own the old one that they replaced eighteen months ago. Though maybe CNET’s estimate that there are between half a billion and one billion unused phones is a more informed view.

I guess I have no real idea about how many people hoard their old phones and may well be overestimating. On the other hand, the CNET report is a few years old and is probably an underestimate of the current level of disuse. So, to approximate where we are now, it’s probably not unreasonable to go with CNET’s higher figure. That is, there are around a billion unused phones.

That’s the computing power of a billion laptops (or 100 trillion Lunar Landers) — an impressive amount of computer power — and it’s going to waste. Why don’t we do something with it?

SETI

By today’s standards, a single smartphone, possibly with a dead battery, may not seem an overly impressive resource by itself, but if a billion of them could be harnessed together, that’s one hell of a computer. How do we do that?

SETI@home (SETI at home) was not the first use of a large scale distributed computer network but it may be the most famous. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is precisely what it says, an attempt to find evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth. SETI@home is project that harnesses the power of otherwise unused computing resources to analyse radio signals coming from space to try and find evidence of life.

The idea is that individual volunteers install software that downloads tasks from a central computer. These will then be undertaken by the volunteer’s machine when it is not occupied doing other things.

I was introduced to the SETI project decades ago when my then head of department showed me a SETI screensaver on his PC. A screensaver is a piece of code that only becomes active when the computer is idle and most just draw nice patterns on the computer’s monitor. This one, however, ran a program that executed the SETI analysis calculations. Once these tasks were complete the results were uploaded to the central computer and new data were downloaded ready for the next set of calculations. And the great thing was that all this was done during computing time that would be otherwise wasted.

There has been a pause in SETI activities and it is not currently sending out tasks for users to complete. At the moment it is concentrating on analysing the data that it already has (we are still waiting for ET).

But from SETI came BOINC.

BOINC

SETI@home is based at the University of California, Berkeley, where they also developed BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. Downloading BOINC to your computer allowed you to take part in the SETI project but BOINC has also been opened up to include many other citizen science projects, as well.

BOINC can be downloaded to any PC, Mac or Android phone which means that you can take advantage of your unused pocket supercomputer to contribute to something that might be extremely useful.

If you are using BOINC on an Android phone, the battery needs to be charged, the phone needs to be plugged in and the screen has to be off before it will activate. So, because it needs to be charging, the phone can still be useful even if the battery is dead.

There are a whole load of projects that you can get involved with from Astronomy and Cosmology to Chemistry and Biology, and all manner of other mathematical and scientific research. Not every project is available for every platform (PC, Mac, Android, etc) but you can find a list of projects on the BOINC website where you can see what is available for which hardware.

For example the asteroids@home project aims to “derive shapes and spin for a significant part of the asteroid population” which sounds laudable but not that interesting. Unless, of course, you take into account that this data is key to understanding the origins of the solar system and, perhaps of more interest to the population at large, the evolution of asteroid orbits around the Sun and thus the likelihood of a future collision with Earth.

There are also umbrella projects that contain many other sub-projects: the Citizen Science Grid is one where they ask you to either volunteer your computer (using BOINC) or your brain (your conscious attention, that is, I don’t think any surgery is involved).

One of the Citizen Science Grid projects is DNA@Home whose goal is to discover what regulates the genes in DNA. Although all cells in the body contain all the genes in your genome, they do different things and this is because only a subset of the genes are used. DNA@home uses statistical algorithms to find out how this actually works.

World Community Grid is another umbrella organisation, sponsored by IBM, it includes projects that are helping to fight cancer, COVID-19, Ebola, AIDS and TB. They claim to manage 2 million scientific calculations per day with the aid of 4 million computers and Android devices.

You need to sign up for these projects (for free, of course) and once you start contributing, you will be able to see just how much work your device has done and when from your own personal project web page. There is also much more information about the projects and what they have achieved on their web sites.

Buzz and Neil’s computer on the Lunar Lander was a miracle of technology for its time. It had its work cut out, though, those early integrated circuits were working overtime monitoring and controlling the Eagle lander and providing fly-by-wire facilities for the pilot. But old phones, unused PC laptops or Macs are so much more capable, so why not use them to do some good? You can still leave the phone lying around (maybe not in a drawer, though) but just make sure that you’ve downloaded BOINC, joined a project, and that the phone is plugged in.

Technology, science and programming. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://technofile.substack.com/ . Web page: https://alanjones.pythonanywhere.com/

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