After crushing the humanoids on Jeopardy this week, IBM’s Watson computer took home $1 million in prize money. Instead of throwing it away on Tiffany diamond-encrusted circuit boards or a Lamborghini to show up other supercomputers, Watson is showing that its silicon heart is in the right place. Half the money will go to the World Vision, a nonprofit that helps children in poverty, the other half to World Community Grid, IBM’s humanitarian supercomputer.
As we chronicled last year, World Community Grid, or WCG, is an enormous volunteer computer network dedicated to scientific research. Ordinary citizens donate their idle laptops and desktops to be used for crunching algorithms and conducting mathematical experiments that accelerate research on clean energy and high-yield rice crops as well as cures for cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and other diseases. IBM started the free,open-source lab in 2004 to make a virtual supercomputer available to researchers who couldn’t otherwise afford one.
Half of Watson’s winnings, $500,000, will be given to scientists who apply for grants to use the WCG. The publicity should only help the grid grow beyond the 535,000 participants (and 1.7 million computers) in more than 80 countries. Yesterday, as word spread of the grid’s windfall, 1,300 people signed up, seven times more than on a typical day. (The Daily Septuple perhaps?)