Who’d have thought a humble screensaver could save the planet, or discover intelligent life on other planets?

That’s the objective of BOINC, an acronym of Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, a project that aims to unite the power of home computers around the world for the common good.

The technology behind this noble notion is ‘grid computing’, a system that connects multiple computers together allowing them to work on sections of a common task, usually a scientific or technical problem that requires hefty computer power.

Unlike the room-filling super-computers of yore, BOINC uses the Internet to connect tens of thousands of modest PCs in the homes and offices of volunteers around the globe to form a super-duper-computer. This great sum of parts is used to chug through huge amounts of data for projects including cancer research, climate change modelling, protein structure prediction, mathematical problems and artificial intelligence systems.

And all Josie Public needs to do to take part in this computational revolution is run a screensaver on her computer. It works like this:

  1. Download the BOINC software from
  1. Choose which projects you want to contribute your computer resources to
  1. The BOINC software then connects to the Internet and downloads chunks of raw project data to process
  1. When the computer is not in use, BOINC kicks in to exploit the unused computer power and a snazzy screensaver pops up giving a graphic representation of the task in hand
  1. When the job is done, BOINC reconnects to the Internet, uploads the results and asks for another job

And best of all, Josie’s computer usage is never affected. As with a standard screensaver, BOINC is active on the computer only when you’re not.

There are BOINC projects for almost all altruistic inclinations. Here’s what’s running on my computer as I type this article:

SETI – Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life – This project, one of the first to use volunteer grid computing, uses BOINC to analyze data received from radio telescopes. BOINC searches the masses of data for non-naturally occurring narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space; evidence of extraterrestrial technology.

World Community Grid – Crunches numbers for a variety of medical programmes including research into HIV/AIDS, cancer, muscular dystrophy and dengue fever.

Hydrogen@Home – A sustainable energy research project which aims to develop efficient hydrogen fuel cells. – Builds models of transmission dynamics through large scale simulations of human and insect populations

Milkyway@Home – Processing data to create 3D models of our galaxy to determine its formation and evolution.

I thoroughly recommend BOINC-ing, particularly as most modern computers have vast amounts of untapped computational power available but are used for little more than word processing, email and browsing the web.

There’s something hugely satisfying in knowing that while you sit idly by your computer staring at your screensaver whilst pondering your Shetland Life deadline, you‘re actually contributing to the good of humanity. That’s an excuse for procrastination if ever you need one.

Published in Shetland Life, October 2009