Today’s Fast Company Assignment: Do Cancer Research in Your Sleep

IBM’s World Community Grid is a volunteer effort to put idle computers–yours, mine, all one billion of them–to work tackling cancer, AIDS and other public health problems. Here’s how to join.


As my story “Look Who’s Curing Cancer” describes, IBM’s World Community Grid is a project of breathtaking scope and ambition. The idea couldn’t be simpler: Let scientists use available downtime on computers to perform math that helps accelerate cancer, AIDS, and other public health breakthroughs. Using algorithms, researchers design virtual experiments to assess up to millions of molecules that could lead to an effective drug. This is astronomically more than they can test by doing physical experiments in the lab.

Cool use of our free computers, huh? More than half a million people around the world think so. That’s how many volunteers the project has.

At one point while interviewing IBM vice president Robin Wilner, I asked, “What does the grid look like, you know, on your computer?”

Awkward pause. “You haven’t joined yet?” she said. “Can I scold you?”

No need. I promptly joined to experience the grid firsthand. Whenever I took a break from writing my story, my computer was busy doing research on muscular dystrophy, childhood cancer, and AIDS.

Now it’s my turn to ask Fast Company readers: What do you mean you haven’t joined yet? There’s a Fast Company team on the WCG site. Sign up today. This minute. We’re not above scolding.


It only takes a few minutes. Click here. You download a program that runs in the background and performs a few limited functions: it identifies when your computer isn’t being used, crunches the algorithms it’s assigned, and reports the calculations back to IBM.

You can select a specific project, like cancer, or let the grid assign whatever needs to be done that day. When you launch the application, called Boinc, click on “tasks” and then “show graphics” to get a specific window showing more details about the test your computer is conducting.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to use your computer any differently. And it doesn’t slow your machine down. I often forget that my laptop is contributing to the grid, because it works when I’m not. For WCG, computer downtime is everything from the few seconds when you pick up the phone and stop typing to the hour when you’re out grabbing lunch. Or you can leave your computer on overnight. The software only uses 60 percent of the computing power on a machine, so it operates efficiently.

Once you join, you’ll notice that WCG loves stats. IBM keeps track of your donated computing time and that of your team. The site tallies points, awards badges, and ranks members and teams, in addition to sending out research updates. People get passionate about their contribution, adding multiple computers at work or at home to WCG, recruiting friends and coworkers.

Now there’s something we’d like to see spread: grid fever.


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.