Your smartphone could contribute to cancer research while you sleep

Smarter phones.
Smarter phones.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Curing cancer isn’t exactly something the average citizen can do. It takes years of training to break into the highly specialized field of cancer research, and that’s only after mastering complex scientific principles and completing an exhaustive medical education.

But non-experts can still actively help the cause. It may even be as easy as owning a smartphone.

In conjunction with Australia’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the telecommunications company Vodafone Australia has developed a mobile app that harnesses the immense processing power of a smartphone for cancer research. Users who download the app can simply plug in their phones and go to sleep; overnight, the phones will receive genetic sequencing tasks from the Garvan Institute, crunch data to complete the tasks, and then send the completed information back to the institute for research use.

“Your smartphone is a small but powerful computer. When it’s idle—like when you’re asleep at night—that power goes untapped. DreamLab puts that power to use for good to fast track cancer research,” Vodafone said in a release. It claims that if just 1,000 people use the app, “cancer puzzles would be solved 30 times faster.”

The app, which is currently available for Android and in development for iOS, allows users to customize how much data they want to send each night. (The data use is free for all Vodafone Australia customers, though it could be costly for people on other plans.) It also lets users choose what type of project they want to contribute to—breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, or prostate cancer.

As noted by Wired UK, there are a handful of other apps out there that also use dormant processing power for public benefit.

And while the Garvan Institute and Vodafone are only sending tiny, isolated tasks to smartphones, the idea—that our personal technology has the power to contribute to something beyond one person’s life—is certainly heartening to consider.