Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Physics researcher Dan Desjardins and software developer Wes Garland at the Centre for Advanced Computing, at Queens University, in Kingston, Ont.JOHNNY C.Y. LAM

Dan Desjardins wants to borrow your laptop. And your smartphone. Possibly your dishwasher and fridge, too.

More precisely, he wants to harness the circuits that are sitting idle in any consumer electronic device that is tethered to the web. Gathering them like raindrops into a vast reservoir, his aim is to turn those devices into a supercomputer that anyone with a laptop and WiFi connection can access.

“What we’re doing is unlocking the unbelievable amount of computer power in the internet of things,” said Mr. Desjardins, the co-founder and chief executive of Distributed Compute Labs, a startup based in Kingston.

In December, the company launched a first-of-its-kind online platform that can act as a digital doorway to just about any type of personal computer, smartphone or internet-connected appliance. Since then, the platform has been gradually expanding and now boasts more than 350 participants.

The company’s stated goal is to aid scientific research. Participants whose devices are not busy streaming cat videos or updating social-media pages can elect to have them used for loftier tasks such as detecting asteroids or calculating the electrodynamics of future transport systems. In return, they earn digital tokens while their machines do the math.

While the new platform operates as an open-source, not-for-profit entity, there is an entrepreneurial side to the venture that seeks to monetize the transactions. For now, those tokens can only be used to buy computer time. But the company is eyeing a future – subject to regulatory approval – in which they carry a cash value that can be traded on an exchange, similar to bitcoin.

“It’s what bitcoin should have been,” said Mr. Desjardins, who credits co-founder Greg Agnew with the idea.

Mr. Desjardins, a PhD physicist who is also a faculty member at the Royal Military College of Canada, said he originally got into the project to find a way to speed up his own research. But if the made-in-Ontario platform takes off, it could eventually be a game changer for large-scale corporate users of computer resources around the world. For example, media companies with massive banks of servers for streaming content could sign on their machines during off hours and then cash in their tokens to perform analytics on customer data.

But whether or not the platform catches on, there is little doubt the need it is trying to address is real. In science, engineering and business, the rise of Big Data has ushered in a growing demand for fleets of computers that can crunch through all those numbers in short order. In Canada, governments have invested in supercomputer networks that scientists and other users can access through the cloud, but processing time is expensive and there is never enough.

“We continue to only meet about half the demand that we’re forecasting out there,” said Nizar Ladak, president of Compute Ontario, which acts as a hub serving the province’s high-performance computing needs and which invited Distributed Compute Labs to present at its annual conference last year.

He agrees that the Kingston company could be sitting on a potentially disruptive technology – if people can be enticed to log on and start earning credits.

The process is straightforward enough. Users need only go to the Distributed Compute Labs website, set up their digital wallets and put their machines to work. For cybersecurity, the transaction is contained so that all the website can do is borrow the connecting hardware to perform simple operations, not upload commands or peek into files. No apps or downloads are involved, which marks a key difference between the new platform and previous efforts to harness personal computers for science.

Among those, the best known is SETI@home, a project that invites users to download a screensaver that automatically sifts through data acquired by radio telescopes looking for signals from extraterrestrials. Developed at the University of California, Berkeley and launched in 1999, the software behind SETI@home has since been repurposed for other volunteer computing initiatives.

One such spin-off is the Czech-led Asteroids@home project, which relies on internet-connected computers to work out the shape and rotation rates of asteroids based on variations in their brightness. Last summer, Distributed Compute Labs contacted researchers behind Asteroids@home and convinced them to test the new online platform.

“The idea itself is great,” said Josef Durech, an astronomer at Charles University in Prague. “I like the feeling of sending jobs to others and the immediate response.” In Asteroids@home’s normal way of doing things, it can sometimes take days to get results back from the bespoke software that participants are running on their devices, he said.

Kristine Spekkens, an astrophysicist at Queen’s University in Kingston, was consulted during the platform’s development and has tested its ability to work with data revealing the motions of distant galaxies. She said the approach offers an opportunity to turn a task that would otherwise take years, because of limited access to supercomputer time, into something that can be completed in a matter of months.

“It would give [us] access to a significant additional computational resource,” she said.

The platform is not suitable for every computer problem, however. Applications that require sharing data or lots of cross-communication between different steps of the process may not work well when broken down and parcelled out among thousands of small devices.

But when a large calculation can be broken down into many small, independent steps that run in parallel, the gain could be enormous.

“For certain kinds of applications, this is probably a good way to go,” said Michael Bauer, a professor of computer science at University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., who is not involved with the new platform.

Mr. Desjardins warns participants who sign on with their smartphones to avoid taking jobs when they’re not connected to WiFi because of data charges. But over all, he said, he is thrilled by the interest the platform has generated in its first few weeks online.

“It’s going to be a really exciting year,” he said.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles