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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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What a waste of CPU

29 August 2017

The total amount of computing power in the world today is mind-boggling.

In fact, if you recall the claim, often attributed to IBM President Thomas Watson back in 1943, we were then told that "there is a world market for maybe five computers".

Boy, was that ever an understatement!

Today, every man, woman and child in the developed world probably owns or uses a half dozen or more computers every day.

PCs, smartphones, tablets, media players, TV sets, washing machines, cars... almost every single non-trivial device has a computer of some kind buried deep within it and the fact is that we've become incredibly reliant on these tiny slivers of silicon.

Over the years we've made them smaller, faster and more energy-efficient but the amazing reality is that the vast majority of computers spend almost all their time simply spinning their wheels -- waiting for something to do.

"Idle" time is the largest consumer of CPU time in the world, and that's a massive shame.

What if we could harness all those idle cycles to do something useful?

Well of course there are a host of ways in which we can do exactly that.

Organisations such as SETI and a growing number of scientific/medical researchers have come up with ways to tap into all those wasted CPU cycles and so those who feel inclined to, can now donate that time to worthy causes.

The SETI @ home project was one of the first and is probably still the most high-profile example of donating CPU cycles. By harnessing the power of millions of computers and using their CPUs when nothing else is, SETI is able to crunch an enormous amount of data at speeds which would otherwise require a very expensive supercomputer to match.

Of course SETI is also a great example because the number-crunching being done ideally suits itself to the distributed processing model. Large datasets can be broken down into smaller datasets and then simultaneously processed by a large number of computers.

This page has some really interesting numbers and shows the diversity of platforms on which the SETI software runs.

At the time I write this, the "total average computing" figure is almost a petaFLOP.

Whoohoo... that's a lot of crunching... although the new Chinese supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight is nearly 100 times faster (OMG!).

However, imagine if all OSes shipped with a daemon which allowed you to donate spare CPU cycles to a worthy cause. What would happen if this was an intrinsic part of our smartphones, PCs, tablets, smart TVs etc?

The amount of raw processing power would be so great as to give our pursuit of science and technology a massive boost -- surely?

Of course the first thing that springs to mind is "what about security?"

Fair enough... but what if we use hard encryption with revocable keys at the client end and distribute all data and commands through a trusted system?

If I had the choice of using a "bog standard" distro of Linux versus one that would automatically donate my spare CPU cycles to a worthy cause, I'd certainly go with the latter.

Sure, it might hike my power bill by a hundred bucks or so a year but that's not something I'd notice and I think the benefits to mankind could be enormous. How many others would be of the same opinion?

And what if Google built such a facility into Android so that smartphone users could donate the spare CPU cycles available while their phone is recharging overnight? That one move alone would be gobsmacking in its effect on the available computing resource that trusted researchers could call on to speed up their work.

What do readers think?

Is it almost criminal that we're wasting so many CPU cycles when there are so many worthy causes to which they could be donated?

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