Home computers are becoming more and more common. They have tremendous processing power, but spend a large part of their time idly twiddling their bytes. In 1995, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute a team of astronomers from the University of Washington and UC Berkeley Space Science Lab* got the idea of harnessing that processing power. Starting in 1999, volunteers could allow SETI to ‘borrow’ their computers during idle moments to analyze chunks of data in the hopes of finding intelligent signals from space. This popular program, known as SETI@home, ran until 2005 when it was switched over to a new software platform called Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC). The new and improved SETI@home still uses BOINC today.
Besides finding aliens, BOINC is being used for many other huge computational problems. For instance, MilkyWay@home, which was started in 2006 by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers, uses personal computers to map the Milky Way and neighboring galaxies. MilkyWay@home is currently the largest shared computer project, having surpassed SETI@home.
If you like the idea of doing your part for science but aren’t that interested in astronomy, BOINC has projects in mathematics, biology, chemistry, and other fields. And more are being started all the time. For example, the DNA@Home platform is being developed to find gene regulations sites on human DNA.If you’re interested in signing up your computer for one of the BOINC projects, you can find the complete list here.
*I attended a talk by Seth Shostak, executive director of SETI, on 2/14/2010, in which he informed me that SETI@home is not a SETI project, but is in fact a UC Berkeley program.