SETI@Home, a massive distributed computing effort hunting for alien life, is beloved by space geeks and Jodie Foster fans everywhere. But distributed computing—grabbing CPU time from individual computers to generate supercomputing-like abilities—isn’t limited to quests for aliens. The technology is used to assemble proteins (Rosetta@home), detect earthquakes, and more. The latest distributed computing project, dubbed Charity Engine, uses surplus PC time for all sorts of projects. In the process, it raises cash for charity and offers participants the chance to win cold, hard cash.
The idea for Charity Engine didn’t come from a charity, or even a large university seeking extra computing power. Mark McAndrew, a former programmer and journalist, was in the middle of penning a sci-fi novel that featured an organization much like Charity Engine. Instead of continuing with the book, McAndrew decided to go ahead and build his sci-fi idea himself, with help from the man behind SETI@Home’s distributed computing platform, UC Berkeley professor David Anderson.
Anyone who wants to help can download the Charity Engine app, which runs in the background of your computer. The app snags a barely noticeable amount of processing power and funnels it back to Charity Engine. All that processing power combined means that Charity Engine has a veritable supercomputer on its hands. The startup is selling that supercomputing power to "anyone who can use it for something ethical," according to McAndrew, at an ultra-low cost. Charity Engine is cheaper than Amazon Web Services ( a popular cloud computing platform that performs similar functions), because distributed computing just doesn’t cost that much.
The system also maximizes energy use with something called the "Winternet"—a method of matching IP addresses with regional weather data and then tweaking the maximum CPU power that a computer donates to Charity Engine based on how hot or cold it is outside. "If it’s mid-day in the desert and the PC is in an air-conditioned room, you can crank it up and waste heat will make it work harder. But if it’s midnight in Canada, you can rev that baby up no problem," explains McAndrew.
Charity Engine’s biggest future client is Wolfram Mathematica, but the system could be used for everything from climate modeling to molecular modeling. "We’re a wholesaler of CPU time for people who have work that’s not top secret," says McAndrew.
Every month, proceeds from Charity Engine are divided between partner charities (including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, and Amnesty) and users running the Charity Engine app. That means in approximately two weeks, a volunteer will win $10,000. With 1,000 users currently running the app, those are some decent odds, especially compared to the average state lottery.
By appealing to the selfish and altruistic sides in all of us, Charity Engine has the chance to one day become a distributed computing project on a SETI-sized scale.