David Anderson, who started one of the original volunteer computing projects, SETI@Home has since been one of the main players in nurturing a global citizen cyber science community over the last ten years. BOINC software is now available to scientists all around the world. Dr Anderson provides us with an insight into what’s happening in volunteer computing in 2012.
What are the top three big issues for volunteer computing in 2012 and beyond?
The biggest issue is how to serve more scientists. Currently about 20 research groups use volunteer computing; I'd like to see this grow to hundreds or thousands. The vast majority of scientists whose research involves high-performance computing have either never heard of volunteer computing or have misconceptions about it which is often a political/or organisational issue. We can address this in various ways by promoting the creation of institutional volunteer computing projects that serve many scientists and the use of volunteer computing by existing high-performance computing centres e.g. Test 4 Theory (which allows participants to run simulations of high-energy particle physics using their home computers).
There's also a technical component: most home PCs run on the operating system ‘Windows’, and most science applications don't run on Windows, they run on Linux, another type of operating system. This compatibility problem will be solved using Virtual Machine technology (a computer application that creates a virtual environment and executes programs just like an actual physical computer) which lets you run Linux within Windows.
Another issue is how to increase our volunteers from our current level (about 450,000 computers) to, say, 10 million. In particular, how to use Facebook to spread the world amongst the 800 million users. There have been several attempts, but none have "gone viral". A new project from New Zealand, "Social Cloud", may have some potential using social networks for building volunteer computing services.
How can the public help in solving these problems and why should the public play an active role within volunteer computing?
BOINC provides many ways in which the public can help. One of the most important ways volunteers help is by donating their computers, laptops, or mobile devices for free. Volunteers also provide "customer service" to new volunteers by participating in message boards or using Skype. Some volunteers even get to test new versions of BOINC carrying out important quality assurance.
Volunteer motivations for contributing vary widely. I hope that, eventually, the primary motivation is to contribute to achieving the scientific goals of specific projects.
Check out volunteer computing fans motivations in the ‘Who volunteers’ section of Volunteer Garage.