Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Last month we undertook a preliminary investigation of an emerging, and potentially planet altering technology, distributed computing. Now that we have an understanding regarding the fundamentals of the model upon which it functions, we will examine the potential consequences of its implementation from the perspective of business, and society in general.

So, great... we have this phenomenal computing power at our fingertips, it's comparatively easily implemented, it's relatively inexpensive, perhaps it's the greatest thing since sliced bread (if you're a geek), but what does that do for me as a business person? Well, I suppose that depends on what your business happens to be. We discussed in the last instalment the tremendous potential benefits for genetic research — in life sciences, or even agriculture. The potential for astounding breakthroughs including cures and treatments for many of today's tragic maladies via utilisation of this technology is self-evident. There are, however, certain areas of concern. 

As today, more and more responsibility for research and development falls upon the shoulders of the private sector, there is clearly the understandable temptation to concentrate efforts on products which will reap maximum profits vs. those which might serve to address the true interests of the general. For instance, why cure a disease, when you can sell an expensive daily medication to manage it? As I am certain you have noticed, there have been a plethora of new drugs on the market lately — do any of them offer a cure to anything? When was the last time you heard about a new vaccine akin in import to that for polio, diphtheria or tuberculosis? I will be willing to wager that it has been a long time indeed.

A few days back, I was watching television and saw an advertisement for a biotechnology company espousing the virtues of its research efforts. They claimed that by way of intensive study and experimentation, they were now able to produce food which was more nutritious — surely a boon to all.

I laughed so hard, I almost fell out of my chair.

The very idea of a for-profit corporation producing product that required millions of dollars in research in order that it might include a non consumer verifiable "feature" is simply ridiculous. This would be akin to IBM dumping a billion into creating an invisible chip designed to make your PC respond more favourably to your aura... obviously a good thing they would opine — as it shouldn't crash as often. The point is, do you pick out your apples by determining which contains the greatest quantity of vitamin C? When selecting chicken breasts, are you primarily concerned with protein content? Have you heard the news?; there's an innovative, nutrient-packed tomato just out on the market!!! Rubbish. Biotechnology, as applies to agriculture has never been about creating more nutritious foodstuffs. It is, and most likely always will be, about getting more from less — in other words, the bottom line. It's quantity, not quality (other than the appearance of) they're after... and we probably wouldn't know the difference anyway.

The effects of distributed computing will very likely figure large in corporate definitions of what modern society's desire for a better life should be. Clearly their vision includes us popping pills and eating crap ‘till the genetically modified cows come home.

Well, before I start sounding like I should be writing an X-Files episode (too late?), don't misunderstand me; I believe this technology to hold tremendous promise. It's merely human nature I have a problem with. While general availability of supercomputing power will certainly provide a mechanism for the achievement of ill conceived, self serving  designs, it too may hold the key to predicting geological or atmospheric disaster, both transient and evolutionary.

From the analysis of the hole in the ozone layer, tectonic plate and volcanic activity, to timely warnings for Billy-Bob to get outta his trailer before the twister hits, distributed computing will provide smallish research groups the computational wherewithal to tackle these problems head on.

Aerospace engineering firms will be better equipped to solve difficulties associated with commercial low and near orbit transportation objectives – of obvious importance to anyone who has endured the hellish flight experiences currently enjoyed by those travelling to their longitudinal opposites. Financial and general statistical modellers will be able to take on more complex analysis than ever before, perhaps enabling pre-emptive actions in future to avoid a situation similar to the present economic gloom. Graphic design and animation firms will not spend the thousands of hours associate with the rendering process, enabling the pursuit of more ambitious projects.

The fact is that nearly every business could potentially realise significant benefit from the utilisation of currently available yet neglected computing cycles. After all, how much of that Pentium's capabilities does your  receptionist require while playing solitaire and answering email? Massive data mining operations could be undertaken by almost any firm that keeps a variety of data stores associated with customer purchases, inventory, accounts receivable, marketing, sales and the like. These repositories could be mined in an effort to discover trends in data otherwise not obvious to the observer in order that competitive advantage might be gained by way of that insight.

Ultimately, distributed computing on a massive scale that leverages the enormous pool of Internet enabled volunteers, may prove the only means to circumvent the corporate profit motive and yet tackle problems which truly represent the global interest. One can not avoid but seeing a bright future for this technology and be equally hopeful regarding the prospects for it.

Originally published in Ottawa Computes! magazine, October, 2001, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

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