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A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and so, apparently, is an idle computer. On November 18, scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) will begin harnessing the idle time of thousands of personal computers to study climate modeling and the resulting weather effects on the Pacific Northwest and California. This project illustrates the power of "citizen scientists," in this case, the thousands of individuals whose personal computers will be leveraged during idle times. By lashing together the computing power of these privately owned PCs, the OSU team will create a digital network with the computational chops of a supercomputer.
The OSU participation in this worldwide initiative, under the leadership of Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, will study the reliability of various climate simulation models in the western United States. Microsoft Research provided primary funding for this initiative, with additional support coming from the Bureau of Land Management, the California Energy Commission, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
The work at OSU will join that already underway in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Since the project's inception in 2003, hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists have donated their spare computer processing power to run global climate change models. During idle times, the personal computers collect data on regional climate information, including temperature, winds, and humidity, which is then compiled and fed into climate model simulations.
Experiments in the OSU-led initiative include predicting regional weather events-including droughts, floods, and temperature extremes-during the 2020s and 2030s, and forecasting the possible climate impact if global temperatures rise two, three, or four degrees by the end of the century.
Surface temperature in the global model - you can watch this progressing as your model runs.
Mote notes that the rationale behind these climate modeling studies is elegantly simple. "In less than two months, we can run 40,000 different year-long climate simulation models with our network of volunteers. A dedicated supercomputer, during that time, could simulate a couple hundred years worth of data."
"It's exciting that both climate modeling and computer technology have advanced to the point that people at home can contribute to the effort to study climate change," he added.
Individuals in the western United States who wish to donate their computer's spare processing power are encouraged to visit www.climateprediction.net/weatherathome, where they can register to have the climate model application downloaded. Much like a screensaver, it will run only when your computer is idle.
—Dan Fay, director of the External Research division of Microsoft Research
Amazing people working to make the world a better place—that pretty much encapsulates the presentations at the recent PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. A network of cutting-edge thinkers from many disciplines, PopTech fosters deep, world-changing collaborations. And in a world where science often receives short shrift in the popular media, the annual PopTech conference puts a spotlight on the social impact of science.
One of the highlights of the conference was the inauguration of the PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows Program, which aims to develop "a corps of highly visible and socially engaged scientific leaders who embody science as an essential way of thinking, discovering, understanding and deciding." This initiative is supported by Microsoft Research, Intel, the National Science Foundation and others.
The 18 Fellows chosen in this first year of the program were all present at the conference, with many presenting the results of their ground-breaking research. For example, Fellow Sinan Aral demonstrated his work on how behavioral contagions spread through social networks and discussed his belief that we are on the brink of a new understanding of human behavior. Sarah Fortune, another Science Fellow, talked about her efforts to develop new approaches to curing TB—the leading cause of death by a treatable disease, while Fellow Justin Gallivan presented his work in synthetic biology, which aims to reprogram bacteria to track and neutralize environmental pollutants.
Some of the most impressive talks revealed how much can be achieved with very little, by thinking outside the box. Dutch inventor Pieter Hoff showed off his creation, the Groasis Waterboxx, a simple apparatus that will enable billions of survivable trees to be planted in arid regions around the world—even deserts and salt flats—helping to reverse the crisis of CO2 buildup occurring today. Nathan Eagle, from MIT, discussed his efforts to build a cell-phone based virtual workforce in Africa, where everything is now starting to be enabled via mobile phones; he is working on rolling this out in 220 operations across 80 countries, reaching a population of potentially 2.1 billion workers.
Nathan Eagle discusses the use of cell phones to empower a third-world workforce of 2.1 billion people.
Lauren Abramson, of the Community Conferencing Center, showed the means for communities to resolve conflict on their own, without governmental intervention. It's effective and costs less than a tenth of going through the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, citizen scientist Gale McCullough presented amazing information about whale migration that she uncovered by watching closely. She has been tracking pictures of humpback whales and discovered that a particular whale photographed in Brazil was also seen off the coast of Madagascar, more than 6,000 miles away. This was breakthrough information: it was not previously known that these whales migrated this way.
Perhaps the most inspiring presentation came from Azeem Hill, co-captain of an amazing team of teenagers from West Philadelphia High School. The West Philly team went head-to-head with major universities and research institutes in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition, a contest to develop production-capable 100 MPG automobiles. The revolutionary car designed by these budding engineers from a disadvantaged community made it to the finals, edging out the team from MIT!
The uplifting mood of the conference was reinforced by treating the attendees to a sneak preview of Kinect for Xbox 360, the new sensor that allows people to control the machine merely by moving their body. This demo was very popular, and attendees began to realize that this is just an inkling of how we will all be interacting with computer technology in the (near?) future.
—Tom McMail, senior research program manager, External Research, a division of Microsoft Research
On November 11 and 12, 2010, an international group of distinguished researchers met in São Paulo, Brazil, to expand ongoing environmental research on the Brazilian tropical rainforest ecosystem. The workshop built upon the Sensor Nets in Tropical Forests, a pilot project that deployed a sensor net in a 1 km2 area of forest in Serra do Mar, Ubatuba, southeast of Brazil. The workshop was sponsored by Microsoft Research-FAPESP Institute for IT Research, a joint venture of the External Research division of Microsoft Research and FAPESP (the São Paulo Research Foundation).
The gathering brought together scientists from the United States, Chile, Canada, and Brazil, representing such diverse disciplines as phenology, climate science, soil ecology, successional forestry, micrometeorology, and earth system modeling. Among them was Dr. Carlos Nobre, one of the world's foremost researchers on climate change, whose talk, "The Fate of the Amazon Forest in the 21st Century," discussed the impact of global warming, climate change, and fires to the balance of the Amazon forest.
The distinguished attendees identified and tied together a multidisciplinary set of research problems with technology development and collaboration requirements, creating an experiment plan that broadly charts several years of environmental experiments and technology development. In the course of developing the plan, the researchers spent considerable time reflecting on how technology can support them in the ongoing research, pondering the implications of using new methods and technology support to conduct their science. There was broad consensus that environmental science is faced with enormous data-driven challenges-from data acquisition to data management, cleaning, provenance, annotation, visualization, sharing, publication, discovery, and archival. These challenges are accompanied by acceleration in problem complexity and the need for new, integrated multidisciplinary approaches to research.
In response to these important and daunting trends, it is essential to develop new technologies and particularly new computational solutions. In the collaborative rainforest project, we find just such interdisciplinary and data complexity problems, and we see this as a tremendous opportunity to solve specific problems by flexible, extensible, and adoptable means. By so doing, we will build solutions with applicability beyond their immediate corresponding problems.
—Juliana Salles, senior research program manager in the External Research division of Microsoft Research