Computers in St. John assisting national research

Courtney Blankenship
These computers in the Creative Incubator Workspace in St. John may look idle, but they are actually assisting COVID-19 disease research by folding data. They have already earned over 800,000 points while working around the clock under supervision of Stafford County Economic Development.

Nearly a dozen brand-new desktop computers line the walls of the Creative Incubator at Workspace 311 in St. John with no one to physically use them since the workspace has been closed due to COVID-19 fears. The computers are not sitting idle, however, as they have been shifted to a new purpose.

Devon Wilson, an AmeriCorps VISTA member working with Stafford County Economic Development, found a way to utilize the computers through the Folding at Home (FAH) organization.

The FAH organization aims to fight disease around the world, including COVID-19, by conducting disease research with the help of personal computers.

Having originally worked with Stanford, FAH utilizes a technique called ‘distributed computing’ to simulate proteins and how they function in the body.

“Essentially, instead of having one computer the size of a building to work through calculations, a million computers already in peoples’ homes take on the workload,” Wilson said. “This workload is distributed into smaller work units, almost like homework assignments, to each computer. After that work is completed, the computer waits in line for more work and the cycle continues.“

Wilson compared the computer workload assignments to that of students who finish their homework early and opt to receive new sets of problems from their teacher.

“You can take and do as many math problems as you want but the capacity to do that is limited by how many problems your teacher can write on the board,” Wilson said. “So, with the newfound power of ‘folding’ at home in the recent months, it’s gone exponentially larger from what it used to be. Essentially, the ‘teacher’ is being overworked because there are now millions and millions of ‘students’ waiting to get these problems.”

The work was a little slow in the beginning, Wilson said, but the computers started building their capacity and at this point, they have performed around a million calculations. After each assignment is completed, points are accumulated as a way to see the progress made.

While there may have been a plan, originally, to redeem points for rewards, Wilson said that the points are mainly accumulated now to show support for the cause and show progress. People agree to have their computers used because they contribute to conducting medical research that works to find cures for diseases.

Computers can be put on a setting where calculations are only performed when the computer is idle and not being used or they can be set so that calculations are done while the computer is in use.

Though Stafford County Economic Development’s computers have only been ‘folding’ for about a month, they currently have over 800,000 points. The computers have been working for 24 hours a day, and as the workspace remains closed to the public, the computers will continue calculating for the cause.

“Currently, the computers are running at all times with no stops. If the computer has power to it, it’s running these operations,” Wilson said. “In the future, if we are doing some work on the computers--- let’s say we have an outreach program or somebody is coming in for remote work--- they have the ability to utilize the computer to its full potential while they’re using it and then the moment they are done, the computing power is redirected to be available to do work.”

In the years to come, Wilson said the project could continue to work and be sustainable if Stafford County Economic Development chooses to continue the program.

“It is the first time that this amount of computing has ever been available, and we’re doing our small part to help but it is part of a much larger effort,” Wilson said. “I’m very happy that we’ve done this here, and it’s incredibly simple.”

FAH saw a massive increase in the number of people who signed up to help the cause by allowing their personal computers to begin ‘folding,’ especially during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Last week, the collective computer, composed of all these home computers, topped what is called the exaFLOP barrier,” Wilson said. “This means that they are capable of 1,500,000,000,000,000,000 operations per second, making it over 100x faster than all other supercomputers in existence combined.”

As far as security goes, Wilson said the system is secure, has not been compromised, and has no possibility of being used for malicious purposes because the information is useless to anyone who does not know specifically what to look for.

People who are interested in downloading the Folding@Home software to allow their personal computers to partake in the folding operation would be assisting the FAH organization’s goal in reaching one million folders to perform calculations for potential cures to diseases.

“I’m happy that we were able to put what was a passive resource here at Stafford County Economic Development, to an active use and I’m really hoping that people who read this article or see it will be encouraged to sign up for this as well,” Wilson said.