A group of computer scientists at the University of San Francisco plan to make a mega calculating machine out of a bunch of strangers’ PCs.

Dubbed FlashMob Computing, this event invites computer users to bring their laptops and their desktop computers to San Francisco, where the devices will be connected in a mega matrix called FlashMob I.

According to John Witchel, one of the endeavour’s organizers, FlashMob I is meant to bring supercomputing power to the people.

“Today, supercomputing is controlled by government…laboratories like Los Alamos and Argonne National Labs. Consequently, the power of supercomputers is applied primarily to studying things that are important to our government. We want to change that. We want individuals…to be able to decide what we use supercomputers for, whether it’s studying the ozone, pollution, AIDS research or leukemia. Whatever the case may be, FlashMob Computing is intended to give ordinary folks more say in how we use this powerful technology.”

FlashMob I will run LINPACK, a mathematical problem for benchmarking.

“The reason we’re running benchmarking software instead of something more exciting is that this is the first FlashMob ever,” Witchel said. “It’s important to demonstrate that this kind of computing can scale to the size of multi-million dollar installations, and benchmarking software is the best way to do that.”

Canadians are by no means barred from attending the event. Indeed, Witchel said FlashMob Computing needs 1,000 participants. “Everyone is welcome.”

To participate, your computer must have at least an Intel Corp. Pentium III processor running at 1.3GHz, or an equivalent chip from AMD Inc., 256MB of RAM, a 100 Base-T network connection and a CD-ROM drive to run the FlashMob I software.

Witchel plans to take data collected from FlashMob Computing and turn it into a thesis for his master’s-level course in computer science. “We hope this will ignite a tremendous opportunity for research.”

The event takes its name from a collection of individuals who organize a meeting place and take part in a group activity for a short period of time, then disperse as quickly as they came together. A high profile flash mob occurred in Toronto last summer.

But whereas regular flash mobs act as commentaries on the current malaise for social protests – these get-togethers are, after all, essentially protest parties about nothing in particular – FlashMob I has a definite goal in mind.

However, Witchel points out the San Francisco undertaking is merely the first step towards democratizing supercomputers.

“FlashMob is just part of the solution. We need improvements in…software tools, compilers, et cetera. But without a supercomputer to work on, it’s very hard for an open source developer to write ‘Ozone Modelling Software,’ for example. If we can show the way to a supercomputer, perhaps someone else can build the TurboTax of ozone models.”

FlashMob Computing takes place on April 3. For more info, see the associated Web site, www.flashmobcomputing.org.

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