You might say it’s a virtual call to arms. IBM and the U.S. Department of Defense spearheaded an initiative in February 2003 to find a cure for smallpox — a virus popular with bioterrorists — by asking PC owners around the world to contribute idle computing resources.

How can PCs find a cure

for smallpox? An emerging technology known as Grid computing allows researchers to combine many small computers to create a virtual supercomputer capable of analyzing billions of pieces of information. In this case 35 million combinations of molecules will be screened to figure out likely candidates for a smallpox cure.

To participate, individuals have to download a screensaver at grid.org, and their PC will do the rest. When it is not in use, it will make calculations, and when they go online, it will send those calculations to the appropriate data base.

“”This is the best way to do the job in the shortest period of time, at the lowest cost,”” says Sal Causi, an executive with the life sciences division of IBM Canada.

Causi expects 2 million PCs will be donated, and that within six months they will have identified the most likely candidates for laboratory tests. Another six to twelve months will be needed to bring a drug to market if the laboratory tests result in a cure.

A smallpox vaccine already exists, but it does not work on patients who have already been exposed to the virus. Plus, as many as 52 people per 1 million who are vaccinated for smallpox experience potentially life-threatening reactions. One or two per million actually die.

Could terrorist hackers cause donated PCs to crash? “”Not a chance,”” says Causi. “”No one can break into this grid.”” If you decide to heed the call to arms, and if it comes down to war with Iraq, you may have an answer for your granddaughter when she asks: What did you do during the war?

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