Don't have the money to contribute to a charity this year? Too busy to donate your time?
There is still a way you could make a donation that could help find a cure for AIDS, cancer or Alzheimer's -- and it doesn't even cost you a thing.
The technique -- known as "distributed" or "grid" computing -- is available to anyone with a computer.
"Grid computing is a way to harness the computing power of individual PCs that's unused, to collect it and then contribute it to humanitarian purposes," said Stan Litow, president of the IBM International Foundation. "Every individual who participates is becoming a philanthropist by donating something that they have that's extremely valuable, but they're not using."
Unused Power in Your Computer
Modern computers are incredibly powerful machines whose processing abilities are seldom used to their full abilities. Regardless of how hard you push it, you're probably not using as much of the computer's power as you think.
"Realizing that excess capacity is there," said Steve Armentrout, chief executive officer of Parabon Computation, "they [grid programs] harvest that idle capacity so that a user who needs supercomputing can get it in this sort of virtual way by using the idle cycles on CPUs like your own."
When this power is used for humanitarian purposes, it gives scientists, researchers and anyone who may need it the ability to do the work of a massive and expensive supercomputer, for virtually nothing.
Programs like FightAIDS@Home and Compute Against Cancer accelerate research by offering computing power they wouldn't have access to normally.
"There are 650 million PCs in the world," said Litow. "So if enough people get together and agree to donate this thing that they're not using, we can not only one day find cures for some of the most difficult diseases people are facing -- like avian flu or AIDS -- but also help answer some important environmental problems and other things that require supercomputing to solve."
How Does It Work?
Joining a grid network is simple. Find a cause you'd like to participate in, download a small program to your computer, install and forget about it.
It may seem like your contribution is just another drop in the bucket, but the results can be huge.
"Each individual decision to contribute is another processor on these grids and it is the power of the masses that actually make these projects possible," explained Armentrout. "You're talking about computational problems that would take decades to accomplish were it not for those individual machines."
So what would keep someone from joining up and being part of an effort like this?
What Are the Risks?
With widespread reports of Internet virus attacks, worms, Trojan horses, spyware and identity theft, some might fear that participating in a grid will make them more vulnerable to becoming a virtual victim.
"We are comfortable saying that on any computer you're willing to browse, you should be comfortable putting our client on," said Armentrout of his company's grid software. "We say it's safer than surfing."
Litow said that IBM is also committed to keeping participants safe, and that in the year IBM's World Community Grid has been in existence -- a network of humanitarian grid projects -- there hasn't been a single problem.
Another concern Armentrout dismissed is that the client program would have any negative effect on the computer itself.
"The client software's job in life is to basically be aware of when the computer is being used by the user and stay out of the way and be unobtrusive," he said. "Then when a machine is otherwise idle, it can work on these large problems."
The program stays out of the way so you never know it's even there, yet your computer is participating in a project that could end in a cure for some of the world's most deadly diseases.
But despite expressing excitement over the grid networks, Daniel Borochoff, the founder and president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, warned that participants should be cautious.
"There may be someone involved in setting up adware or spam that may pretend to have a charitable purpose, to get people to think that it's trustworthy," he said. "People should know that if they do want to participate in something like this, make sure it's a reputable place -- look for third-party verification that it really is public benefit project."
Charity Without the Pain
Borochoff's organization keeps a watchful eye on charities across the country and says that this kind of innocuous giving is perfect for a time of year when people are often cash-strapped.
"What's wonderful about this is that it's painless," said Borochoff. "Typically there's some pain involved, there's usually some sacrifice involved in charitable giving. But this doesn't appear to hurt at all."
Litow agreed and said he sees the opportunities for discovery presented by such an effort as potentially earth-shattering.
"You don't have to write a check, you don't have to volunteer your time, it's not something that creates any risk, but if we all get together and do something together we can do something really important for all of humanity," he said.