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(This is a message for ALL Motley Fools, on the upcoming BOINC initiative)

What would it take to simulate the neuronal activity of your personal brain on your personal computer? There is a lot of activity in that old noggin of yours: on the order of 100 trillion connections between neurons, each one grinding away at the rate of about 200 calculations per second. In order to substitute for your personal brain, as a sort of auxiliary or backup personality, your personal computer would have to be able to sustain a speed of 20 million billion calculations per second, or 20 petaflops in techno-speak.

The personal computer on my desk is pretty fast by the standards of 2003 -- it runs at 4 gigaflops -- but it would take five million of them, all working together, to simulate my personal brain. This may sound like disappointing news to those who hope to see the day when a computer appears human, but now hear this: the level of raw computing power needed to achieve this result is with us today. It requires only a minor software upgrade to spring into life as a fully-functional internet-based distributed computing system, drawing upon the idle power of millions of desktop personal computers. Simulating an actual brain with such a system is not trivial -- the knowledge and software do not exist yet -- but many other worthwhile projects ranging from medicine to climatology to astrophysics are planned for inception this year.

BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, is about to go live on upwards of half a million home computers, just a few weeks from now. This will be a landmark moment in the history of computing: the first all-volunteer general-purpose internet supercomputer, running exclusively on spare computer cycles donated by people like you and me, capable of sustained speeds in excess of 100 teraflops. Volunteers who contribute idle computer cycles to this effort get to choose which projects their cycles will support. Three major projects are already underway:

Protein Folding. When proteins are assembled within our cells, following genetic instructions encoded in our DNA, they fold into compact, twisted forms whose geometry is critical to the functioning of the protein. Protein misfolding is thought to be the cause of a variety of tricky diseases, including Alzheimer's syndrome, Mad cow disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, and Parkinson's disease. This project, which began in 2000, will use the BOINC distributed super-computer to simulate the intricate foldings and misfoldings of key proteins.

Climate Prediction. Million-year simulations of cycles of global warming/cooling and climate change in general... need I say more?

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Radio signals from all across the universe are collected in radio telescopes, broken up into small work units, and distributed to internet-linked personal computers for analysis during idle time. The goal of SETI is to detect signs of intelligent extraterrestrial radio activity, if these signs exist.

BOINC builds upon and extends the awesomely successful computing infrastructure that was built by millions of dedicated SETI volunteers when Congress scrapped funding for the NASA's original SETI effort in 1981. It seemed like a disaster at the time, but the sudden withdrawal of SETI funding proved to be the spark that eventually led to an explosion in volunteer distributed computing. With seed-money support from The Planetary Society and movie-director Stephen Spielberg of ET fame, SETI was miniaturized and stream-lined, and then adapted in 1986 to distributed processing on the internet. Millions of personal computer owners have downloaded the SETI@home screen-saver, which performs the SETI signal analysis whenever the owner is not using his or her machine. To date, 1.6 million years of computer time have been donated in this fashion to SETI, by a lifetime total of 4.7 million people. The number of active SETI volunteers ranges between 500,000 and 600,000 at any given moment, from all over the world, and the entire effort sustains a level of computing power between 50 and 150 teraflops -- all freely donated by a group of enthusiasts who are thrilled to be part of the largest, most powerful, voluntary computing effort ever mounted.

SETI@home was revolutionary, but in recent years its limitations have become evident. The SETI screen-saver is hardwired to handle only one kind of data, nothing else. It isn't even capable of supporting the latest SETI data streams from Australia. BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, is being introduced to provide much greater flexibility -- sufficient flexibility, in fact, so that almost any project that requires the enormous power of a massively distributed computing system can be supported. Thus BOINC represents a major step forward from the old single-purpose SETI project, into the brave new world of volunteer super-computing.

Naturally, the Motley Fool already has an aggressive SETI team in place since 1999. In fact the SETI Fools team is now in 179th place in world-wide SETI club standings, a very significant achievement, with 365+ years of computing power donated so far by a lifetime total of 98 fools. At the moment there are about 47 active members, dueling it out for advancement in SETI club standings against the likes of Bahai SETI, Team Beer, DieselStop, and the NRA. With the advent of BOINC, all club standings will return to zero, and the competition will begin afresh. It will be interesting to see how many SETI Fools will remain with the SETI project, and how many will drift off to one of the other computing projects of BOINC.

Would you like to join the BOINC team of volunteers, and contribute your spare computer cycles to one or more of these projects? All you need is a computer (PC, Mac, or Unix), and a connection to the internet. Participation is absolutely free. Here is how to do it, in two easy steps:

1. Join the SETI project. Download the SETI@home software, install it, and join the SETI Fools team.

SETI home page:
SETI Fools board:
SETI news:

2. The BOINC software will arrive within a few weeks, at which time you should remove SETI@home and replace it with the new system. You will be able to change your project preferences at any time.

BOINC transition plan:
BOINC home page:
Protein unfolding:
Climate prediction:

For owners of fast personal computers with modern operating systems (Windows XP Pro, Mac OS X, or any Unix) and high-speed internet connections, the SETI@home software is probably best run as a background task, rather than as a mere screen-saver. On my dual-processor G4 Mac, I find that there is no perceptible degradation in performance when SETI@home is running in the background, and I get a very respectable number of SETI work units completed every day. For under-powered systems the screen-saver option is best. I anticipate that the same will be true for BOINC, when it finally arrives.

In the distant future, it is quite possible that BOINC projects may actually pay participants for their computer cycles. I anticipate that distributed network super-computing will become a kind of utility, similar to electrical power or the telephone network, with cycles provided by all connected personal computers. By joining BOINC now, you will be getting in at the very beginning of this world-wide super-computing utility service. In the end, who knows? Maybe BOINC will become the host for the world's first true artificial intelligence -- SETI@home will have finally evolved into AI at home, right here on Planet Earth.

Loren Cobb
(AI and SETI enthusiast since 1963, member of SETI Fools since September)
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