Putting The Android Army To Good Use, One Crowd-Compute Project At A Time

Forget facile Facebooking, now you can put the sci-fi-like power of your Android phone to good use. For all mankind.

Such a shame that we typically just let our phones laze around in our pockets a lot of the time, not doing much useful to anyone other than slowly burning up their battery power.

It's easy to forget about the incredible power of our smartphones nowadays--they're everywhere, and thus we take them for granted. But there really is an almost sci-fi-like marriage of advanced semiconductor design, wireless tech, battery chemistry, and engineering in each and every smartphone. This power is what lets your phone make a video call to the other side of the world, play "casual" games that 10 years ago would've needed a whole computer, or even just to keep you up on your friend's gossip via WhatsApp. If you think about the technology like that, then all this tech is going wasted when we're not using it. And that's more or less what the folks at BOINC have begun to tackle.

BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure For Network Computing, is behind many of the recent innovations in what's either known as "volunteer computing" or distributed/grid computing, depending on how you look at it. The idea is simple: A researcher somewhere comes up with a numerically intensive problem that would normally be suited to a supercomputer. But due to funding, the sheer brain-smashing enormity of the task, or other restrictions a supercomputer isn't an option. Instead the problem is diced up into millions of very small chunks, of a size and shape that even a typical consumer's home computer can manage. Then each chunk is sent off to someone's PC around the world to process. Since the task is distributed among a vast grid of volunteer machines, they can achieve phenomenal number-crunching power. Until now this sort of approach has mainly been performed on home PCs or laptops because they have swift enough processors to manage the task in meaningful intervals, like hours instead of years.

But there are now some 900 million Android phones out there. Wired together in the right way they could probably put any supercomputer yet built to shame, and they easily outnumber the 600,000 or so home PCs that already volunteer to solve BOINC's tasks. They're also in many cases always on, often experience long periods when they're not used, and are more or less continuously connected to a network.

Which is why there's a BOINC Android client. It's not quite a full-featured client yet, so for example there's no support for the well-known Folding@home project (for computing protein shapes for medicinal purposes) or SETI@home, the distributed search for a signal from an alien planet (both projects this writer has contributed compute cycles to for years). But there are clients for Einstein@home, so you can help search for the telltale signals of unknown radio stars; Asteroids@home, so your phone can calculate the shape and spin of asteroids; and FightAIDS@home, so your Android can calculate the shape and chemistry of drugs that could block the mechanisms of the AIDS virus.

Cleverly the app won't damage your phone's battery life, eat up precious mobile data minutes, or cause your recharge times to get much longer because its default option is to only compute when your Android device is on charge, its battery is over 90% full, and it's connected to Wi-Fi. But you are, of course, free to change these settings as you wish.

More projects will hit the Android BOINC client in the future, but for now why don't you consider turning over some of your Galaxy's processor power (and a teeny tiny amount of your electricity bill, of course) to the greater good?

[Image: Flickr user Kyle May]