Remember when the geeks that you knew in college lent their computers' downtime to help find alien life? (They did if you were in college in 1999, anyway). The SETI@home project showed up as a geek chic screensaver while using spare processing capacity on ordinary computers to sift through radio-telescope data for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Now dozens of other projects are following the same model–and some are capturing the spare processing capacity of human brains, too. Mental dabbling that might have gone to FreeCell now helps identify galaxies, give guidance to new Skype users, and classify cosmic dust.
And then there's this:
The project, which is part of an initiative called Africa@home co-ordinated by the University of Geneva, will enlist volunteers to extract useful cartographic information—the positions of roads, villages, fields and so on—from satellite images of regions in Africa where maps either do not exist or are hopelessly out of date. This will help regional planning authorities, aid workers and scientists documenting the effects of climate change. Dr Amoako-Yirenkyi is excited by the prospects such projects open up for African researchers. "We can leapfrog expensive data centres, and plug directly into a global computer," he says. Rather than fretting about a digital divide, researchers in developing countries stand to benefit from this digital multiplication effect.