On the grid

Wednesday 3 December 2014 by Lucy Coffey

The Matrix

Throughout October and November, we worked on a 10th anniversary campaign for the IBM World Community Grid – an initiative launched in 2004 to put people’s dormant computer power to good use. And when I say good use, I really mean it. The grid powers research into vital causes like developing cures for childhood cancer and tropical diseases, and finding ways to create sustainable clean energy. All sounds pretty impressive doesn’t it? But how does it work? (I was confused too.) Basically, if you volunteer your idle computing power to the grid, it’s used by groups of researchers around the globe to advance cutting-edge scientific research. Clever.

I’ve signed up (which was easy, even for a technically-challenged person such as myself) and now I don’t turn my computer off at night. So when I leave the office and make my way home, I’m imagining all the great stuff my computer is doing. At the moment, (well not right now because I’m typing) it’s contributing to malaria research and the fight against cancer. And to demonstrate its nightly efforts, in the morning there’s a big bunch of numbers floating around my computer screen. I don’t pretend to understand them (think a watered-down version of The Matrix – kind of), but it gives me a good feeling nonetheless.


This “feel-good factor” is interesting, and it’s something our old Friends Phoebe and Joey once discussed at some length. Remember that episode when they engaged in a heady contest to find a truly selfless act? The debate went on for some time and ultimately Phoebe succumbed to what philosophers, social scientists and neurologists have all discovered – it's difficult to prove the existence of a completely selfless gesture.

That may be true, but it’s a pretty depressing argument. And while it may hold relevance (to a degree) when you give your hard-earned cash to someone in need instead of spending it on yourself – surely the emotional and tangible benefits to the recipient far outweigh any momentary feel-good factor you might experience.


But I digress, as World Community Grid doesn’t really fall into the typical bracket of “charitable giving” – because I’m not really sacrificing anything to drive its cause. I’m just letting my computer do something constructive with its downtime.

World Community Grid is a brilliant initiative, and one that IBM doesn’t really shout about – but that’s in keeping with its quietly confident style. I’m pretty sure that if more people knew about the grid and the scientific discoveries it’s helped make possible over the last 10 years – like finding proteins to combat dengue fever – chances are they’d join the current pool of more than 680,000 volunteers worldwide.

I mean, when someone asks what you got up to last night, wouldn’t it be cool to say “oh, not much… I just helped battle cancer and mosquito-borne diseases”. I think the answer’s obvious. But is that a purely selfish statement? Maybe it is. Either way, I’m happy to say it.

Now, I must stop typing so I can let my computer get back to curing malaria…

If you’d like to support World Community Grid and help power cutting-edge research in health, poverty and sustainability, register here for free.


  • IBM
  • World Community Grid
  • Science
  • Computing
  • Friends
  • The Matrix