Trivia

Hard

The First Volunteer Computing Project Was Focused On?

Identifying Alien Life
Cracking Encryption Schemes
Finding Prime Numbers
Folding Proteins
The logo for the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search project.
Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS)/Wikimedia

Answer: Finding Prime Numbers

Volunteer computing is a combination of three things: volunteers donating unused computer time, distributed computing software to coordinate the number crunching across thousands of machines, and a problem to solve. Over the years, there have been multiple high profile volunteer-driven distributed computing projects like SETI@home (wherein volunteers use their computers to analyze the huge volume of data generated by the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence institute’s telescopes) and Folding@home (a distributed computing project focused on protein folding).

The original volunteer distributed computing project predates both of the prior examples, however, and takes us back to January 1996. There we find the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or GIMPS for short, a volunteer computing project that harnessed computers across the world via the internet to help crunch through calculations to determine larger and larger Mersenne prime numbers. Since the project started (it’s still, some decades later, chugging along), it has discovered 17 prime numbers, 15 of which were the largest known prime numbers at the time of their discovery.

The project coordinators keep track of data about the volunteer computers including what processor the computer that runs the final number-discovering-calculation has. Looking over a list of the processors and the size of the prime numbers they discovered is both a stroll through the history of computing and a testament to how much computing power has been invested in the project. The first prime discovered by the project was in November of 1996, has 420,921 digits, and was discovered using a Pentium I (90 MHz) processor. The latest number, as of the publication of this trivia question, was discovered in December of 2018, has 24,862,048 digits, and was discovered using an Intel Core i5-4590T processor.

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