The network has been tested in the San Francisco Bay Area, and sensors were sent to New Zealand following the earthquake in September 2010 to learn more about the occurrence of “aftershocks” – which are almost as dangerous as the main event itself. In November last year, researchers at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica set up a server to monitor the quake-prone island that lies between the Eurasian and Philippine Sea Plates.
The sensors were developed by Elizabeth Cochran of the US Geological Survey and Jesse Lawrence of Stanford University an currently cost between $60 and $200 per sensor, a fraction of the cost of professional seismometers which can cost anything up to $100,000 apiece. The QCN devices only have a fraction of the sensitivity of research-grade seismometers, but what they lack in sensitivity, they more than make up for in sheer volume, says Lawrence. “With many more cheap sensors, instead of guessing where strong motions were felt by interpolating between research sensors, we should be able to know where strong motions were felt immediately, because we have (QCN) sensors there.”
And soon there could be an army of mobile “quake-catchers”, according to QCN’s Carl Christensen. Smartphones are ideal for the task, as they already have built-in motion-detectors, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and GPS signaling. By summer 2012 QCN expects to release an app that turns your Android smartphone into a pocket-sized earthquake sensor. Soon after, they hope to send 1,000 sensor-equipped phones to places where a fault-line has just slipped.
Some of the hardware being adopted in other citizen science projects also hail from unexpected origins. A major advance in scientific computing came from the development of superfast 3D Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) to run video games on Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. GPUs can do 10 times more than an ordinary chip. Consequently, Dave Anderson, founder of the open-source software platform BOINC, foresees volunteer computing at an “exascale” level – about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second – 100 times more powerful than today’s top supercomputers.
Gaming for gain
The scientific benefits of volunteer computing can be enormous, and consequently there are a host of efforts looking to capitalise on people’s unused processing power. For example, malariacontrol.net simulates the spread of the disease on computer – helping governments decide how to invest most effectively on, for instance, bednets versus vaccines.
In 2005, the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute’s 40-strong office computers struggled to run the enormous numbers of epidemiological simulations needed to get “real-world” results. After turning to volunteer computing, they now have the computing power of up to 15,000 desktops working simultaneously. Nicolas Maire, a researcher for the organization, estimates that this figure is the equivalent of a single desktop computer operating between 800 and 1,000 years. “Realistically, it would have been unfeasible to do in any other way,” he admits.
But it is not all serious work. Some of the most successful volunteer computing approaches have their roots in the world of gaming. Designers and software engineers are taking algorithms and game design principles and using them to solve longstanding scientific puzzles that require complex computer calculations. The programs they are creating encourage volunteers to donate spare processing power by turning it into an online game where people compete and collaborate with each other.
In FoldIt, for instance, players bend, pull and fold digital versions of protein molecules on their computer screens. Building the protein components needed for life involves a complex set of machinery in our cells translating information encoded in our genes into a sequence of amino acids, which are then wrapped and folded by into a three-dimensional form designed to carry out its required function. The amino-acid sequence dictates the shape the protein will eventually adopt, but even small proteins can potentially fold in a huge number of different ways, and so it is always a challenge for computers to figure out which of the many possible structures is the best one.