Androids to fight AIDS


You might describe your smartphone as a lifesaver, but now you can let it help in the fight against AIDS. Alternatively, you can turn it into a tool to help study global warming or discover pulsars.

It’s thanks to the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), which already offered a similar tool for computers. The tool co-ordinates access to several different projects which all make use of around 600,000 volunteers who allow their computer’s processing power to be “borrowed” by research centers to build a virtual supercomputer.

As an example, at the time of writing the project had averaged a combined processing power of 6.2 PetaFLOPS over the past 24 hours. If it were a single machine, that would be the sixth most powerful supercomputer in the world.

Among the projects covered by BOINC are an IBM-backed program at the Scripps Research Institute that explores different possible drug designs to try to find something that can block key enzymes needed by HIV.

Another project, from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, aims to track radio pulsars, which are stars that emit electromagnetic radiation. Because these emissions operate to precise timetables, once discovered a pulsar becomes a useful “navigational” tool for further space research.

BOINC has now released a free Android app in the Google Play store for users who want to lend their devices to such work. Once installed, the app lets you decided which projects you want to help.

Because the power management and usage of a phone differs to a computer (where BOINC traditionally runs when the machine is largely idle), the app only uses the phone in specific circumstances, namely when the phone is charging and has already reached 90 percent of battery capacity. It doesn’t use cellular data connections and instead, if necessary, will store results and wait until the phone has a Wi-Fi connection before sending them back to BOINC servers.