By now, you’ve probably heard of cryptocurrency and cryptomining, possibly because you too want a piece of that sweet, sweet speculative digital asset cash.
If it were 2012 we would be right next to you and mine some Bitcoins or Ethereum on our laptops overnight because it was an interesting project and you got some nice digital tokens worth pennies from it. No harm, no foul.
We are far from those happy days when cryptocurrencies could simply be mined on a smartphone because the blockchains on which they were based were not yet sufficiently mature.
Mining just a single digital token takes a tremendous effort, and while people are willing to pay big bucks for these tokens, the chances that you’re mining enough Bitcoin or Ethereum on your PC to justify the cost of electricity are as good as unavailable.
However, many apps offer that you can mine cryptocurrency while your computer is idle, leaving the prospect of free cash dangling in front of you for you to download their app.
However, read the fine print – assuming the software is legitimate – and you will likely find that these companies take a portion of every fraction of a digital token that you mine during your computer’s idle time. The goal is not to help you make money, the goal is to get thousands or tens of thousands of users to mine cryptocurrencies you.
So what should you be doing instead?
First and foremost, when you are not using your computer, your best bet is to turn it off.
Modern operating systems on fairly modern hardware boot in a few seconds instead of the minute it would have taken five or ten years ago. There is really no longer any need to put your computer into sleep or hibernation mode.
But many of us still leave our computers idle all night for one reason or another, and you might be tempted to put that idle time into something productive.
Instead of mining cryptocurrencies, however, there are plenty of ways to put that idle computer time to good use instead of setting the planet on fire to help venture capitalists who got on the ground floor of Bitcoin get even more obscenely rich than they already are are.
What is distributed computing and how does it work?
The blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies and NFTs works in a distributed network, which means that copies of a particular blockchain exist on multiple systems connected by a network and transactions on the blockchain are only added if a consensus of these systems consents to the addition.
What this all means doesn’t really matter, but distributed computing works similarly, where a program or a process is within a program calculated over several systems connected by a network.
So if you were to use distributed computing to run Google Chrome, for example, different computers on the network would process different blocks of code, the results of which would be collected by one of the computers on the network responsible for managing everything and displaying the browser on it a screen.
On the plus side, you may finally have enough RAM to run Chrome, but the downside is that distributed computing isn’t a very efficient way to run a web browser. What is that? can however, doing it very efficiently is computing and complex modeling, the kind of work normally done on supercomputers.
Programs on supercomputers are usually very simple, all things considered, but what they do is very computationally intensive. Typically, when modeling a weather forecast for the next week, you have to consider hundreds, if not thousands, of variables.
If each variable can have ten values, then modeling all possible potential weather forecasts would require 10 ^ 100 or 10 ^ 1,000 calculations for each step in the model. This is the kind of thing that can stall a normal computer and then grind it to dust over the course of the next century as it tries for years to go through each calculation in turn.
But what if you gave 1,000 computers a subsection of this model to compute over a network, and then they passed the results back to a computer, which gathers the data and puts it together into a usable prediction? Well, that wouldn’t take nearly that long. That’s the power of distributed computing, and its use in scientific and medical research has been growing for nearly two decades.
The BOINC platform
the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) began as a platform for finding aliens. It was built to the University of California at Berkeley SETI @ home Program that enabled volunteers to donate unused computer time to process radio signals from space to look for possible signs of extraterrestrial life.
The SETI @ home project itself is initially in “hibernation” while the researchers are performing a “back-end data analysis”, but the distributed computer platform they built to run the SETI @ home project is now being used by Often used by universities and research institutes for other processing-intensive projects (like the @ home convention, as you’ll see in a moment).
This includes protein fold modeling to learn more about diseases such as Covid-19, projects that study climate change and astronomical phenomena, and key areas of research in mathematics.
Although BOINC is safe to use, it is an open platform so anyone can use it for their project without any quality check. This means that some projects are worth your idle computer time more than others.
The BOINC website has a good checklist of questions Before you contribute to a project, including who is sponsoring it, clearly state its goals and productive use of your idle computer time, and whether the project has published results in peer-reviewed scientific journals (showing that it is really serious about the research it is doing).
BOINC’s website contains a list of projects “We at BOINC are aware of and we believe their descriptions are correct”. While this isn’t a wholehearted endorsement of the projects on the list, it is a start nonetheless.
We have selected some of the most notable projects sponsored by researchers from prestigious universities and institutions that have a reputation for high quality research.
- Einstein @ home: uses LIGO, Arecibo radio telescope and Fermi gamma-ray satellite data to search for signals from pulsars that are difficult to detect.
- LHC @ home: performs simulations of particle and accelerator physics to improve the work of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.
- MilkyWay @ home: is working on the creation of a three-dimensional model of the Milky Way with high accuracy using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
- MLC @ Home: examines complex machine learning models, especially neural networks, to better understand how they work to improve the safety of real-world technologies based on machine learning systems.
- Rosetta @ home: studies protein folding structures to better understand a variety of diseases and to identify potential therapeutics.
Projects not based on BOINC. to run
There have been some criticisms of BOINC in the past for requiring a lot of processing power to operate, which can cause CPU fans to speed up loudly, which can be an issue for some when trying to go to sleep.
Although we have not yet experienced this ourselves, there is this criticism. So, if you’re looking for a non-BOINC Distributed Computing project to volunteer for, we’ve listed some additional options below.
- Folding @ home: After examining new protein structures in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, the project has now moved on to investigating potential drugs that target these structures. Uses its own software and enables you to control when and how much computing power is voluntarily provided.
- Stardust @ home: analyzes the collection grid of NASA’s Stardust mission to capture comet particles from comet Wild 2.
- DreamLab: You can use it, too Android or iOS Device to aid medical research on various types of cancer, although the app is currently exclusively devoted to Covid-19 research.
- Electric sheep: While not beneficial in the same vein as medical or scientific research, this is a distributed platform to generate evolving fractal art and turn those visualizations into a funky screensaver. No, it’s not about curing cancer, but right now we can all benefit from having something cool and fascinating to remind us of the ongoing pandemic.
This article is part of TechRadars Technical resolutions Series, a motivational encouragement that shows you how to recharge your New Year with technology. Our series, which runs from Sunday December 26th to Sunday January 2nd, also shows how we want to improve our gadget life in 2022. Whether you want to become a Chromebook power user, beat your take-away obsession with a new air fryer, or propel you to new fitness heights with a smartwatch, we’ll show you how to fly into the new year. And when everything inevitably goes wrong, you can always blame the gadgets.