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Screen Saver that saves

You can find a cure for cancer. Sounds impossible? But, it could become true. Now, there is a way in which you can be a part of a high-tech research team and perhaps hit upon the right combination to make a cancer drug.

Screen Saver that saves [Illustration by Shinod AP]

All you have to do is download a certain software and use it as a screen saver. This way your computer might find the way to make that wonder drug. So how does it work?

Distributive computing
What do we generally do when we are faced with a very complicated problem. Obviously, we do not try and solve the problem in one go. Instead, we break the problem down into smaller steps. We solve those steps one by one and in the process solve the bigger problem.

The computer that I use is a Intel Pentium 4, 1.4 Giga hertz processor. This means it can process information or commands at the speed of almost 10 lakh (1 million) instructions per second. Generally, I use my computer for some four to six hours in a day, keeping in mind that something like writing a letter consumes only 10 percent of my computer’s power. This means my computer is simply not doing anything with its enormous power for almost 18-20 hours in a day (while it is switched on).

Consider, if there are one thousand computers across the world with similar kind of processing power, we essentially have 18 x 1000 (hrs) = 18,000 hrs of processing power being wasted in a single day. This is almost equal to the amount of processing power a large super-computer has. There are tens of thousands of such computers across the world, which can combine to form several large virtual super-computers.

The problem is, how do we combine their processing power for use? This can be done by what is called distributive computing.

A central server (a large computer which provides information and resources to others) breaks down a complex task or problem into simpler tasks. These tasks are then transferred to the other smaller computers across the world. Once these smaller computers solve the task, the results are sent back to the central server which puts the answers together.

The screen saver program, developed by United Devices and Intel, works on the same principle. You can log on to www.uniteddevices.com and download an agent software that works as a screen saver. If you use this software, it will keep working in the background when you are not using your computer to find the right combination for a cancer drug.

How does the software work?

Scientists have been able to identify protein molecules which will have to combine with certain other molecules to form the wonder drug. Proteins are molecules which serve as essential building blocks of the human body.

There are several proteins and millions of such molecules which may be useful. So, the challenge is to be able to find the molecule which binds best with the proteins.

After downloading the software, your computer will get a protein molecule along with a set of research molecules. It will then study the molecules using a drug-design software called THINK.

This is how THINK works. It will keep changing the shape of the research molecules in an attempt to match it with a protein. If it matches, it means the research molecule can interact with the protein molcule. Such a match is called a hit.

These hits are what this research is all about. Any one of these hits may be the one that will ultimately lead to a cure for cancer. All hits are recorded, ranked, and filed for the next stage of the project.

For all you know, it could be your computer that does it. And you will also be awarded for your contribution.

This software does not intrude with your normal working and is free of cost.

Such distributive computing projects turn the Internet into a huge virtual lab. With the computational power of millions of computers across the world, scientists now have tools to conduct research which would have otherwise taken several decades to get done.