How to Start Volunteer Computing in 2016

BOINC and World Community Grid volunteers are working to save the world. Joining them is easy.

USDA (Flickr)

If you’d like to volunteer for a good cause — or several good causes at once — consider volunteer computing. Heralded in the late ‘90s as a future-changing technology and summarily forgotten by the otherwise hyper-social World Wide Web, it’s still waiting for you to join, and to support the world’s most cutting-edge research. OK, now that you’ve considered that for a moment, go ahead and do it, because it’s really simple. Imagine all the effort of slacktivism, but with verifiable returns on finding quasars and understanding climate change.

For instance, as I write this article, I’m co-operating with thousands of others to help “map cancer markers” and “outsmart ebola.” (Just another day at the office.) I am able to volunteer by the grace of the World Community Grid. Those wise, philanthropic souls have teamed up with the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing — BOINC — and enabled anyone with a computer or Android device to pitch in on exceptional causes.

Volunteer computing involves allocating and donating a small (or even customized, designated) portion of your computer’s energy and resources to research. By crowdsourcing the computational power necessary for very complex calculations — such as the analyses of molecular structures and interactions, or the enumeration of all prime numbers — BOINC enables scientists, mathematicians, and other scholars to complete immense, vital research projects in a fraction of the time and expense that these calculations would otherwise demand. The concept itself is simple, in that it’s mere delegation, but the results are already astounding (not to mention groundbreaking, life-changing, and revolutionary). Already BOINC surpasses in computational power the world’s top supercomputers, but its true potential remains the research community’s pipe dream. With your help, the results will flow even faster than they do now.

If you’d like to join the movement, follow this quick and easy guide. It’ll take you all of 10 minutes and win you back some much-needed karma points.

Step One:

Visit IBM’s World Community Grid and register for an account.

Step Two:

Follow the steps and select any of the WCG projects you’d most like to support. (I chose all of them, and can accordingly say that each day I contribute to clean energy, uncovering genome mysteries, and the fights against AIDS, ebola, and cancer. But make sure you check each project’s system specifications, as, for instance, Android devices (get that app here) are relatively limited in scope.)

Step Three:

Click “Download” (before you hit “Continue”). Once that’s complete, install BOINC just as you’d install any program. (BOINC has a 100 percent clean security track record. Read about it here.) Restart your computer and voila: BOINC is ready to go.

Step Four:

Open BOINC. Click the “Add project” button. If you’d like to activate your WCG projects, select the “World Community Grid” option and click “Next.” Now that you already have a WCG profile, you can now enter your WCG login information on BOINC.

If you’d like to support additional projects, pick them from the “Add project” menu. Note that you will need to register for each additional project independently. The project categories include biology and medicine, cognitive science and artificial intelligence, earth sciences, mathematics, and more.

Step Five:

Let your computer and BOINC begin the drudge work of diverting your excess computational power to the research projects you support. If you run into any issues, check BOINC’s wiki and FAQ.

It’s important to set your preferences. The easiest way to set customized preferences is through BOINC itself. In the menu bar, click the “BOINC Manager” menu, then select “Preferences.” Choose your settings and hit OK. (You can also set custom preferences through each project’s website. For instance, WCG offers preset options, under Settings / Device Manager / Selected Profile, such as “Standard Settings,” “Minimum Impact,” and “Maximum Output.”)

There. Not too hard, right? Now prop your feet up and imagine the look on ebola’s face when you outsmart it, for good.

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