The first computers were technological behemoths. They were not only feats of technical engineering but physical feats in their own right. Owning a computer was the preserve of the largest of companies, governments and militaries around the world. It was decades before the likes of IBM, Microsoft and Apple kicked off the personal computing revolution by shrinking computers and putting them in homes across America. Technology continued to advance in leaps and bounds in the decades that followed the kickoff of the personal computing revolution. Computers – in particular processing chips – continued to shrink at an exponential rate while becoming ever more powerful. Gordon Moore, the co-founder of intel, predicted in a 1965 paper that the processing power for computer chips would double every two years. This prediction has held steady in the years since then and the effect on computing power has been extraordinary. Today, the smartphone in your pocket has more computing power than all of NASA when it put the first men on the moon in 1969.

Processing Power of Computer Chips


A World of Smartphones

There are about 2 billion smartphones in the world today and that is set to rise to 6 billion by 2020. 6 billion smartphones represents huge computational capacity, and often that capacity is underutilized. While worries are growing that we are ‘addicted to’ or ‘overusing’ or smartphones, the fact of the matter is that are smartphones spend most of their existence in our pocket, in a bag or on a table somewhere. Cars are an analogous example. During their lifetime, cars spend 95% of their time parked and only 5% of their time actually driving.

But why is this important? While we are producing more data than ever, we’re struggling to analyze much of it. According to a recent EMC report, only 1% of data produced is every analyzed but 37% of data would be useful to analyze. Increasing our processing power by leveraging smartphone downtime would go a long way to making data analysis faster and more efficient. The idea is based on the concept of distributed computing. A distributed system is a group of interconnected computers working towards the same goals. A distributed system can divided tasks between these different computers to help get work done faster and more efficiently.

To put it in perspective, 1 million phones would be an amount of processing power equivalent to the processing power of one of the world’s 30 supercomputers. It would only take 30 million of the world’s 2 billion smartphones to match the processing power of the world’s 30 supercomputers. This represents a huge, untapped well of processing power that could drive technology and data analysis in years to come.

Smartphone Subscriptions worldwide 2010-2020

Smartphones and Crowdsourced Processing Power

In the last decade, crowdsourced processing power has slowly revolutionized research in a number of different fields. The development of crowdsourced processing power has been spearheaded by a number of industry initiatives. IBM’s World Community Grid – launched in 2004 – works with a userbase of 700,000 volunteers who have donated their time to support over 26 research projects to date. HTC – a rising Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer – launched the HTC Power to Give initiative in 2014 which allows you to download an app which will connect your smartphone’s processing power – while you sleep – to a research-based grid aimed at solving the world’s biggest problems. Meanwhile the University of Berkeley runs the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), an open-source platform which allows researchers to tap into the processing power of computers and smartphones around the world.

While our smartphones might not spend 95% of their time unused like vehicles, dedicated only 6 hours of downtime (say a night’s sleep) towards one of these initiative would bring huge amounts of processing power online. This would have a significant impact on our capacity to analyze and work with data. It would also help advance research initiatives worldwide by leaps and bounds and encourage further adoption of technological platforms in research. Conceivably, users could even be paid a small hourly rate for each hour of processing power dedicated to these initiatives similar to how Amazon Mechanical Turk is set up.

Overall, the smartphones in our pocket represent a goldmine of untapped processing power. As the demands for processing power rise in the years to come, the demand for creative ways to source this power will rise in tandem. One day, your phone could be searching for extraterrestrial life, helping to fight childhood cancer and solving encryption challenges all while you sleep soundly just a few feet away.  


Opening graphic from Freepik.