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SETI founder speaks about Intel P2P cancer project

Lining corporate pockets?

The P2P cancer project launched earlier this week by the University of Oxford, Intel, United Devices and the National Foundation for Cancer Research set alarm bells ringing all over the IT community.

If corporate America was involved in a community PC effort to find these wonder cancer drugs, who would ultimately benefit?

The Register tracked down Dr David Anderson, the brains behind the SETI@Home project and chief technology officer at United Devices, to get some answers.

Lining corporations' pockets?
United Devices - the US company whose technology is being used for the project, will not directly make any cash from people downloading its software. "When you run the cancer application, by default that is the only thing you run," said Dr Anderson.

The company does have other deals where it sells PC owners' CPU cycles to companies, but the only way that surfers using the cancer screensaver can take part in these, and therefore make cash for United Devices, is by voluntarily opting in. By using only the cancer screensaver they are not directly profiting the company under the guise of a philanthropic venture.

Of course, United Devices is not a charity, and it does not deny that it hopes to profit from the scheme in the long run. It claims what it wants out of the project is to raise awareness of its P2P applications so that it can go out and sell the idea to companies. "It's a proof of concept for us," said one company representative.

Windows only

Unfortunately computer owners can currently only take part in the scheme if their PCs run on a Windows OS. The technology exists for other OSes - SETI currently runs on around 80 operating systems, but it will be a while before non-Windows users can take part in the cancer project. "Our priority was to get the agent up and running," said the United Devices representative.

The agents for Linux and Mac users have not been developed yet, but are being promised by the end of this year (no specific dates were given), while researchers are "continuing to look at other options" for other OSes.

This means that, as the cancer project is only planned to be a year long, it will largely exclude all non-Windows users.

Standard screensaver

There are plans to establish standards in the area, but again it is early days. The idea is that users could download one screensaver and then choose which projects to support, rather than having to swap screensavers. "The idea has always fascinated me," said Dr Anderson, who added that he originally designed the SETI software with that idea in mind.

"Perhaps things will ultimately converge for that. There needs to be a standard that companies agree on."

At the moment, companies are largely competing against each other to try and get their way to be the standard. Those interested in P2P standards can check out the Peer-to-Peer Working Group, an Oregon-based organisation that is trying to address standards issues and best practices in the P2P area. It can be found here, and its members include Intel, HP and Fujitsu PC Corp.


Dr Anderson admits he's in an "ironic position" - "I have two jobs in direct competition with each other." But he says the university environment can only offer a fraction of what's needed to develop P2P, hence the job at United Devices. "The only way to do things right, to have the proper support, is to do it in a commercial setting."

However, he doesn't believe the advent of more P2P computing projects will damage the SETI extraterrestrial search project, which he describes as "a labour of love".

"I don't expect it [the cancer project] to reduce the SETI numbers," he said, describing the three million SETI users as "a drop in the bucket".

According to Anderson, who designed the SETI@Home software, and volunteers at the project one day a week, any awareness created by this "virtual test tube" venture will benefit SETI. There are 100 million Internet connected computers in the world, with only a small majority so far hooked up to P2P.

And besides, the SETI@Home users are a select bunch - mostly males into science fiction and technology, and Anderson expects health-related projects to attract a fresh kind of participant.


What exactly will happen to any findings gleaned from the cancer project is still hazy. The University of Oxford, which will own any patents, says it will release the information for free into the public domain in a year's time (when the project finishes). What is not known is how the university will exercise its rights as a patent holder - whether the research, subsidised by computer users, will simply go into lining the pockets of the drug companies.

There should be more on this from the university soon -when Graham Richards, its chairman of chemistry who is involved in the project, returns from this week's launch in California.

In any case, the research is expected to knock years off the process of finding cancer fighting drugs. And isn't an expensive cure better than no cure at all? ®

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