Screensavers of the world, unite!

Picture this: millions of iMac and PC owners around the world using their home computers to help scientists solve complex computational problems.

It may sound far-fetched, but the concept - known as distributed computing - has become a groundbreaking tool for astronomers, biochemists and other researchers seeking a fast and cheap alternative to expensive supercomputers.

Distributed computing can be a valuable asset in virtually any computationally intensive experiment, according to Vijay S. Pande, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford.

``A handful of projects have already demonstrated how such large-scale distributed computing power can be utilized,`` write Pande and chemistry graduate student Michael Shirts in the Dec. 8 issue of the journal Science.

A well-known example cited by the authors is SETI@home, a scientific experiment based in Berkeley, Calif., that uses home computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

SETI@home gives anyone connected to the Internet an opportunity to hunt for signs of intelligent life in the universe by analyzing radio signals from outer space. Volunteers simply download the SETI@home screensaver and software. While they are away from their computers, the screensaver pops up and begins processing the radio signals. Meanwhile, the software automatically checks in at a central website to drop off results and pick up new assignments.

Roughly a half-million users now run SETI@home.

``This large number of processors dwarfs even the largest supercomputers,`` say Shirts and Pande.

They point out that, in just three years, the project accomplished what a single computer would have taken 400,000 years to do.

But SETI@home is only the beginning.

``There are at least 300 million personal computers on the Internet,`` write the authors, but up to 90 percent of all PC processing time is wasted, they say

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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