People (well, their stuff anyway) Power!

I have been working on projects for Leiden University in the Netherlands for almost eight years now – primarily surface science calculations using Classical Dynamics. I like telling people that, because it sounds really cool, when the truth is that I simply let my computer attach itself to the BOINC grid when I’m not using it. It’s called grid computing, and it’s not really a new concept, but it is becoming more popular.

You might recall a few years ago when it seems everyone had the SETI screensaver? That was grid computing. Software that assigns a little task to a lot of computers which becomes more powerful than 1 big computer doing the same task. Grid computing is a great way to utilize otherwise idle resources. I like to participate for ‘greater good’ reasons, but it can also be used by corporations or students. Grid computing is a very cost-effective and efficient way to achieve high-end computing efforts, especially if the participant CPUs are volunteer’s computers (like me).

I bring this up because I was reading an article by Jacob Aron in New Scientist magazine about how it may be possible to harness the latent processing power in smartphones. According to Aron, smartphone owners carry around more processing power in their picket than a 1970s-era supercomputer, but most of the time it languishes unused. That could now change thanks to a plan to combine the unused potential of groups of nearby phones, creating clusters capable of everything from weather modeling to Wi-Fi cracking.

Grid computing hasn’t taken off in smartphones because of their poor battery life, but that shouldn’t be a problem when phones are being charged, says Felix Büshing at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany. Büsching and colleagues joined six low-powered Android phones into a network. Each can carry out 5.8 million calculations per second, or megaflops. When connected via Wi-Fi the phones could carry out a combined 26.2 megaflops, about 75 percent of the theoretical maximum. Connecting the phones together via USB upped this to 29 megaflops.

These numbers, first presented at a computing conference in Macau, China, in June, are ow – around a thousandth of the processing power of a modern desktop computer – but suggest that larger smartphone clusters could be useful. Current high-end smartphones are capable of nearly 100 megaflops on their own and are constantly improving. The system would be most useful when there are large groups of phones charging at the same time. Imagine boarding a train, for example, and plug in in your phone, alond with hundreds of other passengers. Connecting everyone’s phones via the on-board Wi-Fi could allow the train to calculate an extremely detailed local weather forecast using environmental sensor data from the destination, letting you know whether it will be raining when you arrive. Or hacking flash-mobs could team up to try to crack the encryption on a nearby Wi-Fi network.

Büsching points out that smartphones now outsell PCs, meaning there are an increasing number of devices available to join into clusters. Simon McIntosh-Smith at the University of Bristol, UK, says it could be another way to bring phone users together. “It’s a way of further extending the social aspects of events, beyond just Facebook and Twitter,” he says. “The more people show up, the more computer power you potentially have available.”

So, like most of my article,s what does this have to do with marketing? Imagine first of all that there is a cause worth of attention – a cure for AIDS or cancer? You might be able to get a large number of people to volunteer for free, but from a marketing perspective (even for charitable reasons), it may be possible to create incentive via, well, incentives. It’s not hard to imagine a model where, Virgin Mobile, for example, would give away free cell phones to people who contribute to the cluster. Virgin could then sell the grid computing time to a group to make up (or exceed) the lost revenue.

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