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January 20, 2008

Distributed Computing Projects and the Singularity

Grid Computing
© iStockphoto.com / Felix Möckel

I have been an active supporter of a number of distributed computing projects for years. In the early 1990s, I participated in the Great Internet Mersenne Prime search and its challenge to find the largest prime numbers. I refocused my efforts on the SETI@home project in 1999 for two reasons. I felt that a distributed computing search for extraterrestrial radio transmissions was a great way to conduct SETI research for a relatively modest cost by analyzing data that was already being captured for other astronomical research projects. I also felt that, while mathematical research is a noble cause, SETI research had something more concrete to offer humanity, despite the enormous probabilities of success. There are certainly more unimportant things that could be done with spare computer cycles.

Recently, I've been reading the writings of Michael Anissimov, who is a leader in the Singularity community and a prolific science and technology writer. Michael co-founded the Immortality Institute, and is the Fundraising Director, North America for the Lifeboat Foundation. Michael is extremely intelligent and writes on a wide range of topics from Life Extension to Nanotechnology to Artificial Intelligence. His outlook for the future is inspiring and thought provoking. Two articles of his had a completely different outlook on the subject of SETI than my own: Aliens - There Are None and Aliens - Stop Looking. His arguments are persuasive and have convinced me to do some more research of my own on the subject, including the Fermi paradox.

But even if I'm not yet as convinced as Michael is in terms of calling for an outright end to SETI research, I realized that there are many more distributed computing projects that I can participate in that have a higher probability of affecting mankind in a positive way in the near term. For example, rosetta@home's search for the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins and the folding@home project to understand how proteins fold are both worthy projects. They have a high likelihood of helping understand and creating treatments for major diseases by using idle computer time from desktop computers.

Accordingly, I will be focusing the vast majority of my idle computer cycles on projects like these. The fact that I don't find these projects as personally exciting or interesting isn't the point. Finding ways to get through the Singularity quicker by helping humanity in the best way possible is.

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Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here.