Innovation is one of those words that is a bit hard to internalize. Merriam-Webster says innovation is the introduction of something new or a new idea, method, or device. That would be a narrow definition, perhaps even obsolete. Innovation is much more than invention or introducing new technology. Some would say that innovation is more of a state of mind, an attitude. One thing is for sure: innovation is happening more quickly; it is more open and more collaborative. All three of these factors, speed, openness, and collaboration, are caused by or driven by the Internet. Speed for sure. A new idea emerging in a country we never heard of can be globally recognized in minutes. The openness factor is really about standards.
The Internet is not the first thing to be built on standards, but it is arguably the most significant. As one travels around the world you can find cars with the steering wheel on different sides, railroad systems of different track sizes, and electrical and telephone connectors of every size and shape. The Internet, on the other hand, works exactly the same way at every corner of the Earth. Speeds and access vary greatly, but the format of the data and the network protocols to move data from one place to another are the same everywhere.
Collaboration is one of the many applications of the Internet, enabling people in different time zones to share workloads and ideas. On November 16, 2004, IBM convened the Global Innovation Outlook Conference at Rockefeller University in New York City. I had retired in 2001, bit was fortunate to be invited. Many important topics were discussed, but the most significant from my perspective was the introduction of the World Community Grid (WCG).
The World Community Grid has brought tens of thousands of people from across the globe and their personal computers together to create the largest non-profit computing grid benefiting humanity. The WCG is not a Cloud service like Amazon, Dropbox, Google, or IBM provide. The WCG grid provides enormous free computing power to researchers around the world. It does this by pooling surplus computer processing power donated by PC and Mac users.
A desktop or laptop computer is trivial when compared to today’s super computers, but when you connect thousands of them together in a grid, the power is awesome. Most personal computers are utilized a very small percentage of the time. Most users have a screensaver which gets activated whenever the PC is idle for 5 minutes, an hour or whatever the user specifies. If the user joins the World Community Grid at worldcommunitygrid.org, a different screensaver appears, and the idle computing power is made available to the grid. As of April 2021, the WCG had nearly 40,000 active donor accounts, with more than 100,000 of their devices, connected to the Internet, forming a massive grid. The effective computing power made available to researchers is millions of years of donated computing time. I first connected an idle PC in my workshop on November 17, 2004. My cumulative contribution of computing resource exceeds 32 years.
Researchers break their projects into small pieces which can be processed simultaneously on the grid’s computers. Research time is reduced from decades to months. Researchers look at the microscopic world for answers to some the world’s biggest problems but, in many cases, it is hard to know where to start. That’s why many use computer simulations to point them in the right direction, just as explorers rely on maps to find their way. The simulations are run on the grid.
Some of the research projects donated computing resources worked on include:
These are just a few of the many important projects being worked on by thousands of donated idle computer time. Next time you get a new computer, don’t throw the old one away. Consider putting it in a closet and connecting it to the World Community Grid. If you have more than one computer, you can connect them all to the grid. Your spare computational capacity will be deployed toward finding a cure for cancer and other diseases.
In September 2021, IBM announced it was turning operation of the World Community Grid over to Krembil Research Institute, a leading scientific research institution in Toronto, Canada. Krembil Research Institute is part of the University Health Network, which is North America’s largest hospital research network, and affiliated with the University of Toronto, one of the world’s top public universities.