Power to the people

Using wasted power to model climate change is paradoxical, but big problems can be made into bigger opportunities

The most powerful natural law isn't gravity or thermodynamics. It's the law of unintended consequences. The man who invented the wheeled suitcase thought he was just helping tired travellers; it's hard to think of a less harmful idea. Yet by letting people carry more on their jaunts, the wheelie case has led directly to heavier planes, increased fuel consumption and more global warming.

The latest good idea is to let people help model the climate on their PCs. A distributed project that anyone can join, it's a screensaver that runs the numbers on how the Met Office and Oxford University think the weather works. More accuracy here means we'll know better how we are changing the world – and how to behave better. Yet this eminently sensible idea depends on idle PCs, which waste more power than they use. Wouldn't it be better to just turn them off when we don't need them?

Of course it would – but we can't. That would be like turning off a life support machine between breaths. Enterprises especially need to have computing power in reserve – the average server utilisation may be in the low tens of percent, but usage is never evenly distributed. We need to encourage efficient utilisation of spare power, and the climate modellers are just one group with a legitimate call on that power for the common good.

This is a classic opportunity for government to provide real incentives within a regulatory framework. We already have research and development tax credits for business, and mechanisms for identifying and publicly funding good science. Combine the two and let business claim credit for computing resources donated to approved science programmes through distributed processing. The approval process would also address business concerns such as control and security, encouraging uptake.

For little new outlay we'd get a great new resource for the UK research community – the equivalent of a massive new supercomputer that's always available, constantly upgraded and enormously flexible. That would be a concrete statement of confidence in our ability as a nation to use technology responsibly for the good of all. It would also demonstrate our willingness to face the future with flair and imagination.

These are attractive attributes, not least in those who may be looking to prove themselves as far-sighted, visionary leaders. If Gordon Brown finds inspiration in spare processor cycles in the next budget, that would be one unintended consequence that deserves the force of law.