Nicola Vincent-Abnett posted an inspiring article this morning which splits people into four groups by level of technological access. If you are reading this you are almost certainly in the highest, and therefore most energy-consuming, group. As she points out, the onus is on us as members of the group to both reduce consumption and mitigate the impact of our consumption. While some of the steps might need the innovators she praises, we can all do more to not only reduce waste but support innovation by donating the time your computer is not working at full capacity.
Your computer sometimes uses all of its processing power and memory to fulfil a task at your request, but most of the time it does not. Take this paragraph as an example: your computer downloaded the paragraph, which used resources, but now the words are displayed merely keeping them on the screen uses a much lower amount. As we often have a computer built to handle the biggest demands we could put on it, but do not ask this maximum all day, every day, much of the time resources are sitting there unused.
In contrast, researchers are fighting for time on computers that are running at full capacity, delaying innovation.
Some of you will remember the SETI project using the internet to borrow some of the spare time on home computers. However, computer linking is not limited to the search for extra-terrestrial life. In 2003 grid computing cut down the time to research smallpox treatments from over a year to three months. As I write this blog the spaces between my words, the moments when I stop to read through a draft or reach for a dictionary, any time my computer is not focussed solely on my tasks, are being used to model more effective solar panels or potential protein matches for malaria cures via the World Community Grid.
I try to always switch my computer off completely unless I am actively using it, and I do not view donating idle time as a reason in and of itself to change that behaviour. However, sometimes it is idle for one reason or another. Now when I go to the bathroom, make a drink, answer the telephone, or do any of the other short tasks where it would be obsessive to perform a shut-down and then restart the computer is doing something worthwhile.
As my computer is almost always either on and in use or off, I am not currently limiting idle usage; however usage can be limited by criteria such as time-slot or percentage of processor resources. And for those of you who enjoy keeping score, there is even a points system and rankings for how much time you donate.
Are you already using grid computing? Do you think it is a bad idea?