Take my CPU, please

Many of us at CNET do double duty by scouting the galaxy for aliens--usually while we're at lunch. The SETI@Home screensaver, which analyzes radio telescope data from Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, works using distributed computing, harnessing the power of thousands of computers to crunch reams of data. Now, however, other companies are fighting for space on our hard drives. And, predictably, they're trying to make a buck in the process. In this week's Insider, editor Steve Fox alerts us to some of the more uncharitable aspects of the emerging distributed-computing trend.

Turns out, charity isn't dead. Take the well-known Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence's SETI@Home. For those of you who don't know about SETI@Home, it's a massive experiment in something called distributed computing. Anyone with a personal computer, a Net connection, and a slightly altruistic streak can download an application that allows any single computer to work in tandem with thousands of other computers to crunch reams of data, one chunk at a time. Whenever users log in, they can automatically download .25MB of radio telescope data from Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, which their computer will analyze whenever it isn't in use. The SETI application searches for patterns indicating that an alien life form might be trying to communicate with us. Very sci-fi. Also very cost efficient, since no one's getting paid for the pooled computer power. Apparently the chance to find intelligent life on one's computer (no jokes, please!) is a powerful lure for any volunteer.

Here's how I know charity thrives. Tonight, while desperately procrastinating in preparation for writing this column, I was pacing the CNET corridors. All around I noticed flickering SETI screensavers illuminating otherwise darkened spaces as unattended computers sifted for aliens. CNET employees, it turns out, are big-time SETI supporters. Then again, seven users in Tokelau, a territory with a population of less than 2,000, have collectively put in more than seven years of computing time on the project. Go figure.

I'm no curmudgeon. I applaud the SETI program. Let's recognize, however, that computing power is not really free. I'll discount the cost of bandwidth, since SETI@Home sends only a few minutes of data every few days. But, hypothetically at least, you're putting wear and tear on your system, since the application writes data to your hard drive--a mechanical device--every minute or so. And if you're crunching numbers all night and on weekends, you're certainly using extra electricity. Even according to the most conservative estimates, it costs more than a few pennies to run a computer all night. Over the course of a month, those pennies can add up to several dollars. (The debate still rages over whether you can increase a computer's longevity by keeping it permanently turned on; I come down firmly on the environmentally friendly side of saving juice.)

So you, or your company, are paying some price, however small, for your largesse. No big deal. The cause is just, even if no little green men ever materialize. Ditto for sites, such as distributed.net, that add to the store of human knowledge by tackling complex mathematical challenges. Currently, for example, you can lend your CPU cycles to help find the "Optimal 24-mark Golomb ruler" or to crack security company RSA's 64-bit encryption key (a challenge from RSA itself, which is offering a cash prize).

There's a new group of distributed-computing schemes, though, that pose a more subversive threat. I have no smoking gun proving insidious intent, but I know human nature; I've seen Survivor. I know that everybody has an angle. If corporate executives spot an opportunity to get something for nothing (say, donated computer power from well-meaning individuals hoping to save the world), they're gonna seize it. Already, we're seeing commercial ventures that plan to harness the enormous power of distributed CPUs to conquer everything from economic modeling to better mousetrap construction. Needless to say, these businesses hope to make a buck on these projects.

The site Entropia, for instance, touts laudable goals, from fighting diseases to performing mathematical research. Who wouldn't want to "make [their] computer part of Internet history"? Some of the projects, though, such as "researching safe product designs...to test and refine them before manufacturing even begins," are blatantly commercial, even if they could serve the common good in the long run. Entropia president and CEO James Madsen explains, "One of the best things we can do to ensure we will always support philanthropic causes is to run the business right-side up." He also notes, "There's no sustainable business model for member compensation which can guarantee whether the public at large receives ten cents or ten dollars a month and the Internet computing company [has] positive cash flow." In other words, Entropia can't make money and still pay for these computing resources.

The vague assurance that "your computer can play a crucial role in making safer medicines, transportation, appliances, clothing, toys, and more!" gives me pause, as does the prospect that future Internet business models will be built on the backs of volunteer armies of computer users. If you or your company is lending computing power to a money-making venture, payment in kind seems only fair. Don't be fooled by altruistic-sounding pitches; read the fine print before you commit.

In fact, all the distributed-computing sites will need to prove their goodwill before they earn ours. Popular Power, which currently hosts only a nonprofit flu vaccination research project, has commercial ambitions as well. The business will be paying its freelance PCers, but details of the payment plan are not yet set. Same goes for ProcessTree Network, a "for-pay distributed processing network" that asks on its site, "Isn't it time your computer started paying for itself?" Most of us would answer that question with an emphatic yes. Now let's see if these firms are serious about ponying up a reasonable share of revenues in exchange for valuable resources.

Of course, if these sites do end up paying moolah for your MIPS, I foresee a whole new problem. Let's say you could earn real cash simply by letting your computer crank away 24/7. And let's say, too, that you work for a networked company with hundreds of similarly inclined employees. It wouldn't take long before those little electricity bills became whopping electricity bills, with your company picking up the tab. Just watch. This is bound to happen. Then even enlightened businesses will start posting "No Distributed Computing" signs in the hallways and adding new regulations to the employee handbook. Could be trouble for SETI@Home, which is a shame. Those ET hunters were so much fun--and a pretty fine charity to boot.