It's been months now since Napster was effectively run out of business. You know the plot. Company provides a way for people to trade music with each other without paying. Studios complain that people aren't paying for their product. Company is forced out of business. Millions of users, now used to getting content for free, search out alternatives.
Many people, looking for a new unpaid-for music fix, have turned to peer-to-peer, decentralized products. These networks create problems for content regulators because they don't have a single database of users or media. Add to that their popularity (one package alone, KaZaA, has been downloaded more than 85 million times), and you've got yourself a recipe for trouble.
The problem is, some of these products help finance themselves by installing onto your machine more than just the software you requested. This "spyware" rides along, like a barnacle, with the program you want, and can do things like monitor your Internet throughput and randomly pop up ads "related to your interests" on your desktop. One particularly interesting piece of spyware, Altnet, is designed to network thousands of personal computers together to do parallel processing. (They've promised to let users opt-in before their machines are borrowed for their own purposes.)
But wait! Is this really a bad thing? At first it seemed a little invasive, especially if your DSL use is metered. But we got to thinking about all the potential uses for this as-yet untapped technology, and we're willing to brush these concerns aside. With such a massive parallel network at our fingertips, we could:
So you see, having your machine's CPU cycles hijacked for third-party use can be a good thing! Just remember that when this vast network is being used to pop up ads for credit cards, travel services, and male potency formulas on your screen.
- Calculate pi to an additional 43 million digits. Sometimes you need a really round circle.
- Decode the human genome. There are so many diseases that could be cured if we had an accurate gene map. Since we're commissioning the study, the first gene we'll hunt down is the one responsible for making people not shower and talk loudly on cell phones, so we can figure out how to ban it from our morning train.
- Hunt Clippy to the ends of the earth. Firm, but fair.
- Search for and discover illegal MP3 trading. But of course, this would be a redundant activity—you can pretty much do this just by seeing who's installed the peer-to-peer file-sharing software in the first place.
- Disrupt the brain workings of the punk who sent our moms the "delete this valid Windows system file; it's a virus" message. Of course, she forwarded it to all 78 people in her address book. So, being good citizens, we bcc'd them all and sent them the news that it was a hoax, along with a link to a virus-notification site. Out of those 78 addresses, 43 were bounced back as undeliverable. 43!
- Turn everyone's monitor on at once, creating a gentle glow across the world. Sort of like "Hands Across America," but without any real sense of purpose.
- Research time travel. We could then go back in time and disrupt the filming of that beer ad where the big guy runs around covered in silver paint, with his favorite beer's name painted on his chest. Yeah, we know—if you disrupt one thing in the past, popular science fiction says that the future could be irreparably changed. Well, guess what? This ad ain't changing the future.
- Search cosmic radio signals for extraterrestrial life. Of course we'd never find any, but hey! Cool screen saver!
- Do Web Services one better. Right now, when you want to find the time in Asia programmatically, what do you do? A bunch of messy local calculations that can take weeks, if not months. With a network of connected machines at your bidding, you'll be able to connect to a machine in Kyrgystan and have it report back to you with the local time. The problem will be solved in mere minutes.
- Link computers to write an Editor's Note each month. You know what they say about a thousand monkeys typing for a thousand years and creating Moby Dick? The Editor's Note is currently being created by four beagles on a smoke break at a cosmetics testing lab in New Jersey, so this couldn't hurt.