PCs Get with the AIDS Program


When tech mavens first set out to harness the power of thousands of linked computers for a grassroots community project, their target was a strange one: ET. That 1999 effort, the Search for Extra-Terrestrials@Home, roped together a so-called grid of home computers scattered around the world to analyze radio signals from outer space, looking for evidence of life. Now comes a new grid project with a much more down-to-earth goal: fighting AIDS.

FightAIDS@Home taps an already-existing organization, the World Community Grid, to help scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., discover new treatments for AIDS. The project, announced Nov. 21, puts more than 100,000 computers at Scripps' command. Community grids take massive number-crunching jobs that would normally be done on a frightfully expensive supercomputer and parcel them out to volunteers so the work can practically be done for free.

EVERYBODY'S "A PHILANTHROPIST." This is the first use of community grid computing to fight AIDS. "It means there's a better chance of getting more effective or more tailored drugs, and there's also a potential for making drugs less expensively," says Scripps Research Director Arthur J. Olson.

Anyone who wants to participate can find out how by logging on to the World Community Grid. "The more people who come on the grid, the more important research can be done," says Stan Litow, vice-president of corporate community relations at IBM (IBM), which is a lead organizer of both the community grid and the FightAIDS@Home project. "Everybody can be a philanthropist."

The AIDS grid announcement comes at a time of increased interest in philanthropy within the tech world. Google (GOOG) recently pledged what could amount to nearly $1 billion over the next 20 years to social causes (see BW Online, 10/20/05, "Googling for Charity"), and the MIT Media Lab is developing a $100 laptop computer it hopes to distribute for free to millions of poor students in less-developed countries (see BW Online, 10/04/05, "Help for Info Age Have-Nots"). Tech companies were also generous in their contributions to Hurricane Katrina relief.

IDLE BUT WORKING. There has always been a do-gooder angle to the PC revolution. The idea was that low-cost personal computers could democratize computing—spreading improvements in education, health care, and basic knowledge globally and to all strata of society. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Now, rather than expecting technology per se to save the world, industry leaders are starting to tailor technologies for particular causes so they can have a bigger impact. "Companies are attaching themselves to promising projects where tech know-how can help the projects succeed," says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book Confidence, about how leaders can inspire their organizations.

The World Community Grid, set up in 2004, supplies specialized grid software to volunteers who have their computers connected to the Internet. When the computers are on but idle, the software requests number-crunching jobs from the organization's central computers >. Their PCs then perform calculations and the software sends in the results.

"A BIG DEAL." This is the organization's second major project. So far, there are 101,567 members, with 167,386 computers. In addition to individuals, participants include Marist College, The United Way, and the city of Petropolis, in Brazil.

At Scripps, Olson heads an initiative that has been running for 12 years aimed at coming up with novel drug therapies in the face of the development of resistance by HIV to existing drugs. Using a software program, scientists feed in information about target proteins that they want to inhibit and small molecules they're testing as inhibitors to determine how well the molecules will fit into the proteins.

Researchers originally used individual computers and analyzed one pairing at a time, then later harnessed a small, 1,000-computer grid. "This is a big deal for us," says Olson. "It speeds things up by a factor of 100."

MORE ROOM TO GIVE? IBM's involvement is part of a broad effort to apply technology to social causes. Litow heads a project called the On Demand Community, where more than 100 pieces of technology have been created for specific uses, from school mentoring to language translation. More than 55,000 current and former IBM employees have so far donated more than two million hours of their time.

Rather than congratulating themselves, philanthropy-minded leaders say the industry's efforts are long overdue -- and still not enough. Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce.com (CRM), structured the company from its creation in 1999 to set aside 1% of profits, products, and employees' time to be channeled into a philanthropic organization, the Salesforce.com Foundation.

GLOBAL DIVIDE. The co-author of Compassionate Capitalism, a best-practices guide for corporate philanthropy, Benioff applauds the FightAIDS@Home project. "There's more happening today from the tech world, but there still needs to be more," he says. "It's not enough to write a check."

These days, there's increasing commercial pressure on tech companies to do more than make and sell products. As their traditional markets in North America, Western Europe, and Japan mature, they rely more and more on Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe for growth. And, eventually, they'll look to Africa. But significant parts of those markets -- with large populations of poor people -- won't flourish unless a big hand reaches out to them across the digital divide.

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