No matter what holidays you celebrate, or when you happen to read this post, how would you like to give a gift to the rest of the world? And it doesn't really cost anything (except a bit of electricity consumption when your computer is turned on).
The gift is participation in a volunteer "grid computing" project. Wait! I know, your eyes started to glaze over when you saw "grid computing." Please, bear with me for a second!
There are literally hundreds of millions of computers around the world. Many of them are inexpensive laptops or tablets for personal use. You might not think that your "old laptop" is very powerful, but the interesting thing is that it is probably only "in use" for about 2-5% of the time when it's turned on. The rest of the time, it's sitting there waiting for something to do. Even when it looks busy, because it's streaming music or uploading a YouTube video, the brain of the computer (the CPU) is idle most of the time.
So it's possible (and easy) to set up your computers so when they're turned on but not in use, they're helping solve scientific problems that could benefit millions of people. For example, my laptop is currently running projects to help study proteins. This research is useful in fighting diseases such as malaria, cancer, Alzheimer's, and HIV. My laptop is also helping to catalog a high quality model of our near galaxy. It's also searching for pulsar stars, and working on a few other projects. And it's not costing me a penny, other than my electric bill.
Ok, at this point, if you don't want to try to help cure diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, etc., then you can stop reading. But if I've aroused your curiosity, let me describe in more detail how it works, and I'll explain some of the specific projects that I'm supporting.
The project is called BOINC, which stands for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. Berkeley of course refers to the University of California at Berkeley. You don't have to be very tech-savvy to make it work on your computer. The people at Berkley set up the software to try to make it as user-friendly as possible, and to run in the background so you never notice it.
BOINC is currently available for a number of platforms. For Windows, your computer must be running XP (service pack 2) or a more recently operating system, which should cover 99.98% of all Windows machines still functioning. For Mac's, you need OS X 10.4 or later. There are also versions for Linux and for Android, although the Android software is currently not working properly since Lollipop was released. That should be fixed shortly.
Here is the download page for BOINC: http://boinc.berkeley.edu/index.php
How It Works:
Basically, an institution that has a very large amount of data to process, but not enough computers to do it, can set up their project with BOINC. People who decide to contribute computer time to a project will receive small chunks of data to process. Your computer will spend a few hours or a few days processing this chunk of data, and then sends the results back to the project's institution. The institution then sends you another chunk of data to work on. This all happens in the background, so you don't have to spend any time answering or sending emails, etc. And if you're worried about the internet usage, you can restrict the times that data is sent or received, and you can cap the bandwidth if you want. But for most people, this won't be a big deal. The bandwidth that most of these projects will send/receive in a day is probably less than you'd use watching a two-minute YouTube video. If you're on Android on a phone, you can tell it to wait until you're at a free WiFi point to send/receive, so you don't use any of your mobile data.
The strength of the system is that the institution can be sending chunks of data out to dozens or even thousands of computers all around the world to simultaneously help work on analyzing data! If you're curious about what happens to data that can't be processed, and whether or not it affects the project, there are safeguards. For example, if you are processing info for a project and your laptop gets run over by a bus, there are deadlines built into each chunk of data. So for this example, if the institution doesn't get results back from the data chunk that your computer is working on within say, 30 days, it sends the same chunk out to someone else's computer to analyze.
Slightly Technical Section:
You can ignore this short section if you want to avoid technical stuff!
BOINC on all my machines has a screensaver, which I've turned on. I've matched the screensaver start time to my "start BOINC processing after 10 minutes of downtime" setting, so when BOINC starts, the screensaver comes on. You don't have to run the screensaver. However, for some of the projects, it's pretty cool, and it's a nice conversation piece if someone notices it and asks what your computer is doing. You can tell them that you're saving the world.
Here are some of the projects that I'm supporting. I have them set to cycle automatically, so my laptop processes one for an hour, then moves on to the next, so they eventually all get an equal share of my computer's time. In the preferences, you can allocate different percentages of your overall CPU to various projects, in case there are some projects that you want to support more than others.
After you install the BOINC software, you'll have to go to the "load project" section and pick a project that you want to support. After that's set up, load another project if you want. You'll probably be impatient at first to see it start working. Give it time. When you first install it, it needs some time to download data to process, to think about how to set things up, and so on. Also, your stats screens and screen saver will display stats showing how many "work units" your system has completed. Don't expect those to go up right away! It may take hours or a day or two before your system finishes processing the first batch of data, then the data has to be sent back to the project sponsor and verified. So it may look like you've processed 0 units of work for a few days, and then all of a sudden it'll jump up to hundreds or thousands of units processed. Be patient.
You may wonder how many people are participating in these projects? As of today, it appears that about 236,000 people from around the world are contributing computer time to various BOINC projects. They are doing this on about 481,000 computers. By the way, many users are running BOINC on several machines and tablets and phones simultaneously. For instance, I have it running on three devices in my house.