Blown To Bits

Fighting World Hunger with BITS

Saturday, May 17th, 2008 by Ken Ledeen

As we wrote Blown to Bits, we came to recognize that many of the stories in the news were “bits stories.” Sometimes it’s a bit of stretch, other times far less so. Consider world hunger.

The price of rice has been rising. A story last month in the New York Times reported that rice producing coountries were cutting back on exports, civil unrest was rising, and a crisis loomed. For populations that spend a large portion of their income on food, populations where rice is often a staple of their diet, these increases can be devastating. It is a complex problem with potentially dire consequences.

But how is it a bits story?

The University of Washington’s “Nutritious Rice for the World” project is seeking to mitigate world hunger by analyzing rice proteins. The goal is to make it possible for farmers to grow rice strains with higher yields, greater resistance to disease, and even improved nutrition. It’s a noble cause, and a difficult scientific and technical problem. The computational needs of the project are enormous. Using conventional computing approaches the time to complete the analysis could well be measured in centuries.

We could just wait for computing power to increase. With computers doubling their performance approximately every year (close enough for this calculation), in a a decade, they will be 1000X faster. A task that would take 200 years using todays’ computers should take 73 days then. Wait another decade, and they will be 1,000,000 times faster and our protein analysis will take less than 2 hours. But the rice crisis won’t wait that long.

The team at the University of Washington had a better solution – harness the aggregate computing capacity of thousands and thousands of otherwise idle computers – your computer and mine (if you choose to participate). They joined the World Computing Grid project.

A computing grid is a loose collection of computers that work cooperatively, each doing a small portion of a large computing task. It’s similar to the way Google works – dividing the processing of your query across lots and lots of computers so that the response is fast. This particular grid joins technology and social involvement, allowing individuals to “contribute” unused computer time. In addition to analyzing rice proteins, WCG now has active programs for cancer research, AIDS, protein folding, denque fever, and more. The WCG harnesses the computing power of over 1,000,000 computers from more than 380,000 participants.

This is one more example of the transformative power of the digital revolution. Not only is it possible to do complex protein structure analysis, but also we can share the task across thousands, even millions of computer linked through the Internet, computers that belong to ordinary citizens of the world, with a shared purpose, part of a community that has been made possible only by virtue of the social connectivity that the Web engenders and supports.

Even world hunger is a bits story.

One Response to “Fighting World Hunger with BITS”

  1. Wholediet Supplements Says:

    This is great information about University of Washington making use of technology to increase rice production and meet crisis.Thank you for what you are doing to educate and raise awareness about this important topic.