Some of the first computers were created with the intention of solving specific mathematical problems or making the rote calculations that were often done by mathematicians and workers more manageable. Over time, the technology has improved immensely, and as a result we are able to enjoy computers as devices of entertainment and luxury rather than labor. But underneath the hood of your personal machine, the number crunching power remains and is more potent than ever before, because the basic arithmetic operations that are used to run any application or process are constantly being improved in an attempt to gain more performance for day to day use.

For the everyday user, much of this potential is put to waste during normal use because the programs that are being run are not intense enough to fully utilize the power that is available to them. This means that for a huge number of computers, the potential to do useful work during the day is put to waste. Yet there remain a huge number of mathematical and scientific problems that need to be solved and which require massive amounts of computational time and power, the same sorts of the problems that the original computers were setting out to solve.

Alone, the resources of an average desktop computer may be of little help in solving these problems, but today, every device is connected to the internet, and thus to every other device. What scientists and mathematicians have realized is that with this network, they can distribute the work among many machines and tackle the problems much more quickly than they ever could have before. In fact, there are dozens of projects that currently employ this tactic and which are always looking for more help in their efforts.

Personally, I have my computer searching for large prime numbers, because I find the topic quite interesting personally (and the $3,000 cash reward for finding one is quite alluring). But many options exist in many fields, all of which share the common trait of being passive applications that efficiently use the wasted resources on your machine to help significant problems facing science and mathematics. Some are even interactive, such as foldit, which allows users to help solve complex protein folding problems that pop up in biology and medicine by folding proteins themselves in a game.

These projects often seem like wastes of electricity because of their scale, but many successes have been had in the past. The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, which I donate my computer power to, recently discovered the largest known prime number of all time. And in 2011, foldit users helped to solve a problem regarding an enzyme involved in the reproduction of HIV in just 3 weeks.

So take a look at the options that are out there, take your pick, and help solve some of humanity’s unsolved problems.