IBM Taps Into Android Devices for Volunteer Computing Effort

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2013-07-22

IBM Taps Into Android Devices for Volunteer Computing Effort

IBM is enabling Android mobile device users to share their device power to assist researchers in solving some of the world's great challenges.

With the new capability, Android device users can empower IBM research projects and other scientific efforts such as fighting AIDS and discovering new stars. IBM announced that for the first time, owners of Android-based smartphones and tablets can now "donate" the surplus computing power of their devices to science. With the additional processing power from smartphones, researchers from IBM's World Community Grid and the Einstein@Home project will accelerate their search for medical cures and for unknown pulsars.

Using what is known as volunteer computing, these scientists already tap into a pool of donated computer processing power to conduct their simulations and data analysis. Volunteer computing enables people and organizations to contribute toward scientific progress with little effort, and provides researchers with what are essentially very powerful, globally distributed supercomputers.

IBM officials said that up to now, volunteer computing has used traditional computers such as desktops and laptops. However, as mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have become more powerful, energy-efficient and numerous, they are able to offer considerable computing power to scientists.

Indeed, there are now about 900 million Android devices, and their total computing power exceeds that of the largest conventional supercomputers, IBM said.

To allow these devices to participate, volunteer computing software developed at the University of California, Berkeley, called Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), has just been updated. Owners of devices that use Android 2.3 or higher can now participate in citizen science efforts by downloading BOINC from the Google Play site, then choosing the projects to which they want to contribute.

The BOINC project, which choreographs the technical aspects of volunteer computing, was founded in 2002 at the University of California, Berkeley, with support from the National Science Foundation. Development of its Android version was funded partly by the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, IBM World Community Grid, the National Science Foundation and Google.

To preserve battery life, minimize recharge time and avoid the use of allotted data on cell phone plans, smartphones and tablets running BOINC will only perform calculations when they are being charged, when the battery life is above 90 percent and when they are connected to wireless local area networks (WiFi). While these are the default settings when BOINC for Android is downloaded, users can further customize the rules governing its use.


IBM Taps Into Android Devices for Volunteer Computing Effort

One of the first projects to be enabled for Android-based volunteer computing is the Einstein@Home search for unknown radio pulsars led by the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hannover, Germany. Android users will power an application that analyzes data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the world's largest radio telescope. The application searches for radio pulsars by detecting their pulsed electromagnetic wave emissions.

Pulsars, or pulsating stars, are very compact stellar remnants with extreme physical properties compared with normal matter, IBM noted. Some of them tightly orbit companion stars, providing unique test beds for Einstein's general theory of relativity. However, the sensitivity to discover new pulsars is limited by the computing power available. More computing power will accelerate the Einstein@Home search and will make it more sensitive. This work helps scientists understand how stars and the universe evolve, and enables volunteers to discover new radio pulsars with their Android devices.

Einstein@Home was founded as a key project of the World Year of Physics activities in 2005 and is an International Year of Astronomy 2009 project. More than 340,000 participants globally have helped discover almost 50 new radio pulsars. Einstein@Home is led by the Center for Gravitation and Cosmology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, with financial support from the National Science Foundation and the Max Planck Society. The long-term goal of Einstein@Home is the direct detection of gravitational waves from rapidly rotating neutron stars. Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, but only now is technology catching up; soon scientists will be able to measure these tiny ripples in space-time.

Another project enabled for Android smartphones and tablets is Fight AIDS@Home, a search for more effective AIDS treatment hosted on IBM's World Community Grid. The Olson Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute is using computational methods to identify new candidate drugs that have the right shape and chemical characteristics to block HIV protease, HIV integrase or HIV reverse transcriptase, the three enzymes that the deadly AIDS virus needs to function and spread.

IBM's World Community Grid plans on Android-enabling other projects in the future. World Community Grid has been used to facilitate research into clean energy, clean water and healthy foodstuffs, as well as cures for cancer, malaria and other diseases.

IBM said more than 2.3 million computers used by more than 600,000 people and institutions from 80 countries have contributed power for projects on World Community Grid. The result is one of the fastest virtual supercomputers on the planet, advancing scientific work by hundreds of years. By 2013, at least 22 projects were running or had been completed as part of World Community Grid. Since its inception in 2004, this resource created and managed by IBM has provided research scientists with the equivalent of more than 750,000 years of computing at no cost to them.


Rocket Fuel