Smartphones are increasingly powerful

It wasn't that long ago that 2GB of RAM and a quad-core processor was unheard of for a PC, let alone a portable telephone. Just ten years ago I bought a new $1500 PC with just a single core chip and 512MB (yes, mega-bytes) of RAM.

We are increasingly profligate with them

And yet we are becoming increasingly wasteful with mobile phones. The smartphone industry is focused on selling as many phones as it can and it does this by promoting an unhealthy smartphones-are-consumables attitude, especially to the younger generations. Teenagers (and often adults) seem to be itching to get their sweaty palms on the latest smartphone after just months of ownership of the previous latest smartphone.

Credit: Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG/

How can we give something back?

If you've got a smartphone - Let's face it, you probably do. Heck, you might even be reading this on one! - then the chances are its processor is running most of the time at just a few percent of its potential capacity.

Volunteer computing - donate spare CPU speed

If you've got an Android, you can donate this spare CPU (central processor unit) speed to various worthy scientific research projects. This is all thanks to the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) and their Android app.

Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC)
Credit: BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing)

Volunteer computing has been around for quite a while for PCs, but developing an Android app opens up the opportunity for scientific projects that rely on BOINC to run their computations on Tera FLOPS worth of mobile device processors.

What projects can I support?

Whilst there isn't yet support on Android for quite as many projects as there are for PC, there are still plenty of great causes to donate you spare processor power to. You can choose from supporting projects such as:

  • Simulating quantum computing.
  • Looking for cures for HIV-AIDS/cancer etc.
  • Searching for radio signals from extra-terrestrial life.
  • Finding pulsars. (Please don't ask me what a pulsar is!)
  • Mapping the nearby universe.
  • Calculating the rotational motion of asteroids.
  • Identifying similarities between proteins.
  • Decoding 3 original Enigma messages from World War Two.

These projects are of real value to the scientific community. For example, by participating in the "identifying similarities between proteins" project, your phone is adding to a database of proteins and amino acids that provides crucial data everyday to biologists and chemists - and helps them in vital work like developing prescription drugs for currently incurable diseases.

Getting involved is easy!

Even the most technophobic smartphone users amongst us can surely manage to download an app and then follow a few basic instructions.

Things to consider:

Running smartphone/tablet processors at full tilt is obviously not without its risks. There are  downsides to running BOINC on your device, but the app developers have put precautions in place:

1. Decreased battery life - using the CPU drains the battery fast.

Solution: Runs only when plugged into charger.

2. Increased temperature - using the CPU generates heat.

Solutions: BOINC app suspends processing above 40 degrees.

3. Phone runs other apps more slowly.

Solution: BOINC app suspends when other apps use the CPU.

These settings are present as default on the newly installed app and should only be changed by people who know what they're doing. The consequences otherwise are unthinkable - fried gadgets, zero battery life etc.

A word of advice

As with any app, using BOINC is your own risk. If you do decide to install it and run tasks to help out the scientific community - and indirectly the rest of the world - that's great, but always keep an eye on your phone/tablet. If it starts getting too hot, suspend BOINC.

Enjoy the rewarding feeling of satisfaction

Donating your extra CPU speed really does help people out. Going to sleep at night does feel that little bit easier when you're secure in the knowledge that your phone is working on a cure for cancer.