It’s hard to argue that climate change isn’t the number one issue of our times. It’s not just a generational problem that needs solving, it’s an existential one. It’s the all-encompassing antagonist that makes every other problem worse, and everyone – except the US government, at least – knows it.
IBM has also acknowledged the extent of the problem, and has strongly thrown its support behind the Paris Agreement. Now, speaking to IFLScience, the company has revealed that it’s going to do its part in solving the crisis by unleashing its secret weapon: a “crowdsourced supercomputer”.
Since 2004, IBM has run the World Community Grid (WCG), an international network of personal computers that, when linked up, contribute their processing power and cloud storage space. This giant web acts as a supercomputer – one of the most powerful computational systems on Earth.
“We can have an ordinary, solitary supercomputer dedicated to working on these efforts, but eventually even a supercomputer would run out of capacity,” Juan Hindo, manager of the WCG, told IFLScience.
WCG volunteers download an app to their computers and devices. When they’re not being used, the devices automatically perform virtual experiments driven and directed by a team of researchers all around the world.
“This model is infinitely scalable, and also taps into a resource that would otherwise be going to waste.” Researchers are given access to a massive amount of computing power for free, along with a “community of volunteers who are excited and engaged in learning about the work.”
“That element of public engagement, and bringing in the public into your research, and raising awareness of your work is something you would not get by doing your work on a normal supercomputer,” Hindo said.
It currently has over 730,000 volunteers and millions upon millions of devices working on problems as diverse as Zika, childhood cancer, clean energy, and water filtration technologies.
Environmental science projects have emerged in the last few years, but this push on climate change is the most ambitious venture yet. The WCG will be made available to five innovative climate change research projects, all to the tune of $200 million.
“We’re casting the net wide,” Sophia Tu, Director of Corporate Citizenship at IBM, explains. “We’re looking for work to get us to solutions, to show us how to adapt to climate change, how to mitigate it.”
“Migration patterns, the spread of disease, changing drought patterns, crop resilience – we’re open to anything on this. We know that climate change is an interdisciplinary field, so we don’t want to rule anything out.”
Tu told IFLScience that the WCG was born out of an experiment back in 2004, and initially focused on the health side of things. The success of the initial trials then led to projects on “drug discovery, HIV, along with neglected tropical diseases, Ebola, Zika – a lot of work on cancer as well.”
“We’ve seen our volunteers really rally around these projects in the past,” Hindo adds.
“When the WHO declared Zika a global health crisis, we had volunteers and researchers coming to us and saying ‘What can we do to help?’ We now have a hugely successful Zika crowdsourced program that’s still running today.”
Applications for the new climate change initiative are open until September 15, and the winners will be given access to this rather remarkable crowdsourced supercomputer this coming autumn. So if you’re a researcher with a penchant for saving the world, click here and send in your proposal.
As in the past, all the raw data is open access, and the research will be made publically available to anyone.
“When we receive proposals from scientists, we often come back to them and say: this is great, but we want you to think bigger – thousands of times bigger,” Tu explains.
“Our message to scientists is: think big, and we’ll support that.”