Come together, right now, over P2P

Popular Power will pay to borrow your computer and make the world a better place.

Published December 14, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

Nelson Minar built a moral challenge into the distributed computing software developed by his company Popular Power. Users who agree to let their computers join the start-up's peer-to-peer network have a choice: They can earn about $5 per month by selling their CPU power to businesses; or they can donate their shiny new Apple G4 Cube to nonprofit tasks, receiving nothing but the warm fuzzies that result from doing good deeds.

But there's a twist. No matter whether users choose to be greedy, benevolent or something in between, they'll still end up contributing processing power to both for-profit and nonprofit clients. Minar designed the system so that even libertarian Ayn Rand fans who click the "maximize payment" option and utterly disdain charity will still end up donating at least some time and effort to helping scientists find a better flu vaccine. And vice versa.

"It's a commercial and socially conscious ideal," says Popular Power's chief technical officer, who founded the San Francisco company a year ago with his college buddy Marc Hedlund. For both business and ethical reasons, "It's the right thing to do."

On the one hand, he says, "We're scavenging these resources, so why shouldn't we give back to the public good?" And on the other, "Popular Power is a business, not a charity," so why should do-gooders completely avoid helping the company's corporate clients?

Cash and community, profits and dreams of a more perfect electronic union: Welcome to the peer-to-peer (P2P) scene, circa late 2000. Sure, the essential tenet of peer-to-peer -- the idea that computers can work together as both servers and clients -- started kicking around 20 or 30 years ago. And yes, "P2P" only attained buzzword status because Napster convinced millions to download its software and trade music with each other. But the developers following in those file-swappers' footsteps also see themselves as pioneers. They want to mine P2P for more than just gold or their MP3s. They are also aiming for a better world.

Whether it's Uprizer growing out of the free-speech-inspired Freenet, or Mojo Nation's attempt to build a libertarian utopia or Parabon's plan to compute against cancer, "There is a real sense of idealism surrounding peer-to-peer," says Ian Clarke, creator of Freenet.

Hackers, engineers and even venture capitalists now talk with giddy exuberance about how peer-to-peer will let average, everyday users "reclaim the Internet" and encourage them to join together in massive communities to code, sing and speak their minds without fear. Not only will they compete with giants like Yahoo for traffic, but maybe, just maybe, they'll use this new "Inter-internet" to make the world a healthier place.

Achieving their starry-eyed goals won't be easy. At least one critic, Andreas Stavropoulos, a director of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, says that peer-to-peer prophets like Clarke and Minar are living in a dream world. "They have simplistic assumptions about what it takes to close real accounts, to drive real revenues," he says. "They suffer from idealism," and thus, they fail to understand that drawing users and customers requires more than just passion. "You can't just walk in and get [people or companies] to run untested peer-to-peer platforms that are expensive and may or may not offer great value," he says. "It's unrealistic; it won't happen."

Still, Minar and his ilk continue to toil away, unfazed. They're convinced that science and society will soon crave more than just Napster and that the work they're presently doing -- improving interfaces, creating incentive schemes, testing stability -- will draw the crowds they need to survive, thrive and make a difference.

"Peer-to-peer is growing up," says Gene Kan, a developer of Gnutella for Unix-based computers.

"There's idealism running throughout peer-to-peer," adds Tim O'Reilly, the computer book publisher who also sits on Popular Power's board of directors. "And that will continue to be the case. It's a real revolution."

O'Reilly, Minar and others argue that medicine and genetics will fuel their success, while allowing them to maintain their noble goals. Science, healthcare and computer science are merging every day -- most obviously in biotechnology research and the mapping of the human genome. According to O'Reilly, distributed computation companies like Popular Power can profit almost immediately from this trend.

"Scientists used to need a big government grant for massive research projects, but now you'll be able do it through the Net," O'Reilly says. "Distributed computation is arriving at a time when science is realizing that it needs it."

Take, for example, Popular Power's first client, Derek Smith. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science, but his passion is virology, which simply means that he loves to study the way viruses interact with the human machine. HIV was his first target; but his present work -- primarily for the World Health Organization's National Influenza Laboratory at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, and the Influenza Branch of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) -- focuses on how strains of the flu interact with immune systems and vaccines.

Influenza's coughs, sneezes and aches may seem like an insignificant concern. But the virus kills at least 20,000 people each year nationwide, according to the CDC, and while flu shots are the best way to keep it at bay, they don't always work. "The flu is a moving target," Smith explains. Unlike, say, the measles, it mutates into thousands of strains each year, which means that scientists must guess which strains will spread and which vaccines will be effective. So far, clinical trials show the efficacy of vaccines to be about 80 percent.

But everybody would like the vaccines to work 100 percent of the time, and Smith's research is aimed at helping that happen. For the past eight years computers have dominated his research. And, as with other applications of distributed computing -- graphics and financial modeling, for instance -- "Processing power is the key," he says.

It's essentially a matter of the more, the healthier. Before the spread of P2P, Smith would typically borrow about 15 PCs from colleagues and friends, and use the computers to model thousands of interactions between mathematical versions of viruses, vaccines and immune systems. Comparing the results of the number crunching revealed which vaccines worked best. And since it took more than three years just to code the software and write the algorithms, he felt that the graphs and charts he was sharing with fellow scientists were a sign of substantial progress.

Then, about nine months ago, he discovered Popular Power, and a whole new world opened up. "When Nelson told me what he was doing, I couldn't believe it," he says, looking back. "I told him I could use that kind of machine right away."

The excitement hasn't faded. Smith's research now runs in the background on thousands of computers, and he can't stop marveling at the power of "the giant brain." He speaks freely in terms of millions, billions -- even trillions -- of simulated interactions. He envisions using computers to build a flu vaccine that saves everyone who gets a flu shot. He even imagines a time when the research he's done on the flu will act as a model for similar studies of HIV.

"Computer modeling is a growing area of biology," he says. There's Parabon's effort to model how cancer cells react to drugs; there's the Biomedical Computing Group, formed in June by the National Institute of Health, and Process Tree, where peer-to-peer computers are being used to help a Swedish scientist build safer storage vessels for radioactive waste by simulating the radiation around an encapsulated radioactive source.

The options are endless, Smith says. "As we become smarter and smarter about how we use technology, it will become more and more important."

But demand solves only half the equation. What about supply? Will people actually find Popular Power, download the software and give back their processing power? Stavropoulos and some technologists favor skepticism. Napster has drawn 38 million users because it offered music for free. It appeared first and it caught the cultural zeitgeist, but fans mostly flocked to the service because it let them give and take something they were used to paying for.

There's no guarantee that Napster's music-inspired success will overcome the "what if it goes wrong factor," Stavropoulos says. Indeed, most peer-to-peer projects, including Freenet, still have fewer than a million users. Popular Power, for example, has fewer than 50,000 -- enough to keep Smith happy, but merely a fraction of what Napster numbered even before lawsuits made the company front-page news. And while Minar, O'Reilly and others point out that most Net-connected computers are clustered in offices, many companies won't be willing to give them up, says Dan Bricklin, CTO of Trellix, which makes Web authoring software. "It's a matter of trust," he says. Companies may not sell off their unused computer power because decentralized systems aren't as stable and secure and because they're subject to the whims of individual users.

"You have to look at the specifics of your case," he says. "The bottom line is that peer-to-peer is a technology strategy that is appropriate at some times and not in others."

Fine, says Ian Clarke of Freenet. So peer-to-peer needs to convince businesses and the world that it's safe, easy-to-use and effective. Napster did it, and so did SETI@home, lining up more than 2 million people who still let their idle computers search for aliens. Others success stories will follow.

"Maybe I'm being an optimist, but the primary problem with peer-to-peer so far is that the tools have been too difficult to use," says Clarke. Once developers make peer-to-peer a "one button, quick download, install this" application, millions will flock to it. Look at Freenet; when it started, users needed to understand IP protocols and maybe a little HTML to get it working right. But in the past few months, traffic has increased substantially because, Clarke believes, the development team has added a Windows installer and a Web component. Users can navigate through Freenet from within their browser.

"Peer-to-peer is about encouraging participation from users, so when it's very, very simple, people won't choose to be just mindless consumers," he says. "They'll become participants."

Plus, if the urge to create doesn't draw a crowd, there's always the magnetic appeal of cold hard cash. Process Tree plans to offer users $100 to $1,000 per year for their computer time; Popular Power hopes to cut deals directly with ISPs so that payment complications are minimized. Meanwhile, Mojo Nation's system includes digital payments that users dole out themselves. "Leechers" who simply try to take content -- music, movies, porn -- lose their stash, while sharing earns it back.

Ultimately, though, most peer-to-peer preachers trust that incentives won't be entirely necessary. Capitalism and Thomas Hobbes may hold that selfishness rules human nature, but Minar envisions a more complex version of both business and man. He plans to succeed and help the world; and he says it's only possible because people will follow the example. In fact, they already are.

"Eighty percent of the people who use our software give half their computer time to nonprofit causes," he says. "It's pretty amazing."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

MORE FROM Damien Cave

Related Topics ------------------------------------------