Last Updated: May 16, 2008: 8:17 AM EDT
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IBM: From supercomputers to superrice

How sharing unused processing power computer can aid the fight against world hunger.

By Marc Gunther, senior writer

(Fortune) -- Next time you get up from your computer, consider this - you could be helping scientists discover new ways to attack the global food crisis, find a cure for cancer or understand the impact of climate change on Africa.

You can do so not by giving money or time, but by sharing your computer's unused processing power with a nonprofit network organized by IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) known as the World Community Grid. So many people - 383,558, last time I looked - and so many devices - 989,479 - have signed up for the grid that it now packs as much power as the third most-powerful supercomputer in the world.

The World Community Grid launched in 2004, the same year as Facebook. Think of it as social networking for the common good.

This week, IBM announced its latest grid project - an effort by a research team at the University of Washington to develop stronger and more nourishing strains of rice. Ram Samudrala, a 36-year-old PhD who leads a 30-member research team, says it would have taken them decades to complete their rice research using the computing power at their disposal. With access to the World Community Grid, he says, he could generate results in less than two years.

The work is timely, of course, given rising food prices and global shortages of rice. But projects like this can't be cobbled together in response to a headline. Stan Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate citizenship, told me that the overseers of the grid have been talking with Samudrala and his team for about a year.

"There are certain kinds of research, like studying 60,000 rice proteins, that require the heft of one of the world's largest supercomputers," Litow told me.

Five other research efforts - aimed at better understanding cancer, climate change, AIDS, drugs for dengue fever and human proteome folding - are also underway. All findings from the research must be left in the public domain.

While IBM organized the grid and the company donates the expertise, hardware and software to make it possible, research proposals are reviewed and approved by an independent scientific board. The grid began slowly, working on just one idea for nearly a year, but ideas are now flowing in. "Once you set up the infrastructure," Litow says, "the incremental costs of adding another project are low."

Samudrala told me his work would be impossible without recent advances in communications (broadband Internet), computing power and genetics. (The rice genome was sequenced in 2001.) His field is called computational biology.

"Rather than going to a bench lab and trying to dissect frogs," he explained, "we use modeling to understand biological systems." You can't grow rice in Seattle, Washington, where he is based, so new strains are tested by his colleagues in China and Thailand.

Samudrala's a multi-talented guy. He's a self-styled computer nerd, a guitar player who composes and records his own music, and a comic book aficionado. (Check out his website for lots more.) A native of India, the problem of world hunger is personal for him - he traveled to the north of India a few years ago and saw children subsisting on a single bowl of rice a day. More productive rice strains, fortified with nutrients, would make an enormous difference in their lives. Rice is the principal source of calories for about half of the world's population.

If you are reading this column, you can join the grid. You need only download and install a small, secure piece of software. (I just did so, and it took me about five minutes.) You won't feed a starving child today - but you could help feed millions in the future. To top of page