There will come a day when the last incurable disease is conquered. On that day, our descendants will begin to enjoy long, healthy, productive lives free from constant physical pain, impairment or disfigurement – and wonder how we coped with such unimaginable suffering in this, the remote and savage past. The very word 'incurable' will be consigned to history, such will be their command of biology and the technology to influence it.
Tiny machines will clean arteries and repair organs. Drugs of astonishing complexity will trick cells into never growing old, enhance intelligence and boost physical abilities. Replacement body parts will not just be grown in laboratory tanks, but made at home using cellular printers and genetic blueprints.
And all of it will be thanks to supercomputing.
Accurate simulations of the human body are the key. Testing new drugs on a virtual human (perhaps scanned copies of our own bodies) will be millions of times faster than doing it in a lab, completely safe and far more effective. No more animal or human testing, no more wasted research or unforeseen side-effects – just run the simulations and find out what works.
This is no pipe dream. Computational drug design already exists, but so far we can only predict which compounds are likely to work on certain parts of human cells. Those compounds are then created and tested as usual (on live cells, then animals, then humans). It saves countless hours of lab time already, but the potential is even greater. All it needs is more computing power.
In fact, everything needs more computing power.
Our civilisation currently depends on dirty, polluting and finite reserves of two commodities: energy and fertilizer. Don't be fooled by the temporary reprieve of shale gas, it's not an infinite resource any more than oil or coal. In just two more generations, three at most, all fossil fuels will be gone (and the Earth will be ecologically wrecked by climate change, of course).
The same applies to the mineral fertilizer that allows us to feed ourselves. Without the millions of tons of it that are spread on fields every year, crop yields are pathetic. And it's also a finite resource, currently being mined to exhaustion along with plenty of other minerals and metals that are essential for our ever-expanding population.
We need alternatives, breakthroughs, new technologies – or humanity will never get off this planet, our entire history and culture destroyed by our own stupidity. What's to be done?
The answer to everything is clean, renewable energy. When energy is free and limitless, we can solve almost all the other problems. We could pump megatons of desalinated seawater to the middle of deserts, where huge greenhouses would feed the entire planet without the need for stripping rainforests. We'd scrub CO2 from the atmosphere, recycle minerals from the oceans and rubbish dumps, even start mining operations on the Moon.
We could do all these things now, but the energy required is just too expensive. Wind, solar, tidal and geothermal (we are living on a ball of molten rock, after all) can all play their part, but the ultimate answer is clean fusion power: a man-made Sun in a box that basically runs off sea water. If we can crack fusion, we're in business. And guess what we need for that?
Like almost everything else nowadays, fusion reactors are also designed using supercomputer simulations. You don't build a $10Bn experiment without some confidence it will actually work. But again, just like the human body simulation, we don't have enough computing power to be 100% accurate. We still have to build gigantic machines and do most of the testing in real life, which means progress is painfully slow. Nuclear fusion has been '40 years away' since the 1960s – and we are running out of time to make it work.
So when will we have the computing power to change all this? Well, maybe we already do.
The Internet has 1000x more computing power than every supercomputer on Earth combined – and it wastes nearly all of it. A modern PC is now so fast, it can browse the web, perform office tasks or play films using less than 5% of its supercharged little brain. Even a smartphone is more powerful than the supercomputer which designed the stealth bomber, and we have a billion of them doing nothing every night except watch a battery charge. In total, over $500m-worth of potentially world-changing computing power is wasted every day.
Technically, it can all be harnessed. The problem is persuading millions of PC owners to allow it, which is why we created Charity Engine based on seven key principles:
Rewarding. If you donate spare computing time, you earn prize draw entries.
Fairness. The more computing you donate, the more entries you earn.
Simplicity. Just 60 seconds to install, fully automatic. Never lift a finger again.
Efficiency. Only uses a tiny bit of power, so costs pennies to run (and earns much more).
Security. We use Berkeley University's famous BOINC app, used safely by over 6m PCs over the last ten years. Recommended by IBM, Intel and the BBC, BOINC is also open-source software (so anyone can check it).
Worthwhile. We donate half our profits to the world's best international charities, causes that almost everyone is happy to support. It saves lives now, not just in the future.
Responsibility. Signed ethical policy contracts with our charity partners, so no unethical research can ever use this service.
For the scientists, the result is a global grid of PCs that can be hired just like a giant, super-green supercomputer – except it's 10x cheaper than anything else out there. It can also be the world's most powerful platform by a huge margin, which makes it extremely useful.
For the PC owners, even if they don't care about the science, it's still a lifetime of chances to win serious cash prizes and the most effortless way to donate to charity ever invented. Pretty cool for a free PC app.
And for us, it's the realisation of a mission: to stop wasting this incredible resource called the Internet and use it to genuinely change the world. Of course, we can't predict what day humanity will finally achieve fusion power, or cure the last disease, or fix the climate, but sooner is definitely better.
And later might not even be an option.