Distributed Computing: For the Common Good

Chris Hornung '18

I was at the American College Health Association's annual conference in early June and someone shared a quote that stuck with me. I do not remember who the original author was or the exact words they used. Nonetheless, it went something to the tune of, “We possess all of humanity’s knowledge from the beginning of time in the palm of our hand, yet we use it to watch cat videos.” It is a sad truth. The computer or phone you are using to read this blog has more memory and processing power than Apollo 11 had to land on the moon in 1969. With the advent of the internet, the device you are using grants you access to nearly all of the books ever written, all the scientific findings ever found, and yes; an endless stream of cat videos. What if we used our technology for more than entertainment though? What if we could leverage the technology so many people utilize on a daily basis to change the world? These are the exact thoughts that Dr. Vijay Pande, a biomedical scientist and professor of chemistry, structural biology, and computer science at Stanford University, had when in 2000, he launched  Folding@home, a software program designed to help determine the mechanism of folding and structure of proteins. The misfolding and structure of these proteins, have been implicated in diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to cancer. ‌By better understanding how proteins go awry in the body, Pande hopes that we can target and develop better therapies for their treatment.

Pande realized that big data processing happens to be one of the rate-limiting steps for how quickly molecular research can be conducted. Additionally, buying space on a remote supercomputer is expensive and can further slowdown progress while researchers try to secure funding. He also realized that when most people go to bed at night, our computers sit idle, and their processors unused. Collectively, that adds up to a LOT of processing power that could be used to benefit research in important fields! The brilliance behind Foldiing@home is that it can tap into this available and free computing power while we sleep!

The concept Folding@home utilizes is called distributed processing and the general idea of offloading tasks to a distant computer system has been used in the engineering industry for decades to simulate construction processes. The difference between distributed processing and typical remote processing though, is that engineering firms will offload simulation tasks to a single, remote, typically commercial supercomputer. The supercomputer runs all of the simulation tasks and spits out information that the firm can use. Folding@home is different. Since a supercomputer is essentially a network of thousands of processors on a single grid, Pande and his team send parts of their simulation tasks to different personal computers around the world. This includes laptops, desktops, smartphones, and even PlayStations! Instead of one supercomputer doing all of the tasks, volunteers can download the Folding@home software and when their computer is being charged and not in use, its processors can be utilized by Pande and other researchers. By utilizing the idle functions of thousands of individual’s computers, researchers can run the mathematical simulations of the proteins being studied. Each computer “solves” a piece of information pivotal to the research, and gets sent back to a database at Stanford. The database then aggregates the data from all of the individual computers and gives researchers meaningful insights about protein folding. Data collected from Folding@home software has already been used to publish 139 papers on proteins related to diseases!

Tommies Unplugged is not against technology, our goal is to distinguish between technology that is conducive to the common good and technology that is not. By donating some of your computer processing power, you can make a difference to the future of treatments of common diseases and healthcare as a whole. That is why Tommies Unplugged has started a team on Folding@home for the St. Thomas community to join in on its efforts. To learn more about how you can get involved in click here. When we think critically about how we use our technology, we can truly change the world.

For more information about Folding@home, their software, and the biological phenomena they study, visit their website: folding.stanford.edu

For more information and tips on how to improve your relationship with technology visit the Tommies Unplugged webpage at stthomas.edu/wellness