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Volunteer computing goes mobile to help fight HIV/AIDS

With the release of a new BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) app for Android devices, World Community Grid (WCG) volunteers can now crunch numbers for the FightAIDS@Homeproject right from their mobile phone or tablet. The FightAIDS@Home project began in September 2000 at the Olson Laboratoryof The Scripps Research Institutein La Jolla, California, US. The IBM-sponsored WCG provides the project’s distributed, volunteer computing power, with the ultimategoal of creating the world's largest non-profit computing grid.

BOINC running on an Android device, showing World Community Grid and the FightAIDS@Home project. Image courtesy World Community Grid.

“HIV is constantly evolving new variants. Some are multi-drug resistant ‘superbugs.’ When you contribute computing resources to the FightAIDS@Home project, you are helping screen different molecular compounds against an active site, to find compounds that bind,” says Alex Perryman, a researcher in the Olson Laboratoryat The Scripps Research Institute. Knowing which compounds bind could lead to new drugs for HIV treatment.

“We also screen against alosteric sites,” adds Perryman. “‘Allostering’ involves binding at one location and getting action at another. So you could actually regulate the activity of the active site region.”

By some estimates, there will be nearly 2 billion smartphones in use worldwide by the end of 2013. Android is currently the most popular operating system, with over a million new device activations every day.

“There are about a billion Android devices out there now, and the total computing power exceeds that of even the largest conventional supercomputers,” says BOINC creator David Anderson, a research scientist at the Space Sciences Laboratoryat the University of California, Berkeley, US.

“Right now BOINC runs on around 350,000 computers worldwide, but mobile devices are the wave of the future. And they’re able to provide the necessary computing power to computationally difficult problems,” explains Anderson. “Our main goal is to make it easy for scientists to use BOINC to create volunteer computing projects that further their research.”

“BOINC on Android must be completely unobtrusive; people won’t run it if it reduces their device’s battery life or impacts its performance,” adds Anderson. “So BOINC computes only when a device is plugged in and fully charged. In addition, BOINC transfers files only when the device is connected via Wi-Fi, thereby avoiding the use of cell-phone data plans.”

World Community Grid will be adding other projects in the future and is investigating options to expand to other mobile platforms.Owners of iPhones and iPads stay tuned; a BOINC app for Apple products may be Anderson’s next project. Ultimately, mobile devices are central to future consumer computing – and someday they may even provide the bulk of the world’s computing power. BOINC for Android now gives scientists access to this major resource, and accelerates vital research areas.


- Amber Harmon

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