SAN FRANCISCO -- The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is sponsoring cooperative computing awards, with over half a million dollars in prize money, to encourage ordinary Internet users to contribute to solving huge scientific problems.

"We're providing incentives to stretch the computational capabilities of the Internet," said Tara Lemmey, EFF's Executive Director. "We hope to spur the technology of cooperative networking and encourage Internet users worldwide to join together in solving scientific problems involving massive computation. EFF is uniquely situated to sponsor these awards, since part of our mission is to encourage the harmonious integration of Internet innovations into the whole of society," she added.

The prizes will be awarded for finding huge prime numbers, that is, numbers that can only be divided by 1 and themselves. The first million-digit prime found will be worth $50,000; a ten-million-digit prime will claim $100,000; a hundred-million-digit prime garners $150,000; and the finder of the first billion-digit prime will receive $250,000. The largest known prime number, discovered by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), has 909,526 digits.

"The EFF awards are about cooperation," said John Gilmore, EFF co-founder and project leader for the awards. "Prime numbers are important in mathematics and encryption, but the real message is that many other problems can be solved by similar methods."

Finding these prime numbers will be no simple task, given today's computational power. It has taken mathematicians years to uncover and confirm new largest known primes. However, the computer industry produces millions of new computers each year, which sit idle much of the time, running screen savers or waiting for the user to do something. EFF is encouraging people to pool their computing power over the Internet, to work together to share this massive resource. In the process, EFF hopes to inspire experts to apply collaborative computing to large problems, and thereby foster new technologies and opportunities for everyone.

Prizes and cooperative projects to find prime numbers or demonstrate weaknesses in encryption systems have existed for some years, although they have not yet found mass market appeal. "The approach that we're taking with prime numbers could be used for other scientific problems, such as analyzing the human genome, weather prediction, or searching for signs of life in space," said Gilmore.

"In the long run, we hope to move beyond prizes," he said, "catalyzing a market where ordinary people can sell the spare time on their computers to others who need to compute something overnight on thousands or millions of machines. This would reduce the net cost of owning a personal computer, and open new opportunities in animation, product design, economics, cryptanalysis, science, and business."

According to Landon Curt Noll, chair of the award advisory panel and discoverer of many large primes, the prizes are spaced so that winning each successive award would require over 100 times more effort. "While one could wait for computers to get 100 times faster, it would be much smarter to attract 100 times the number of people to cooperate on the problem, or to invent a more efficient prime searching procedure. Both methods offer benefits to society."

"Given current technology, I would estimate that GIMPS could discover a million digit prime within a year," said Simon Cooper, a member of the award advisory panel. "Discovering a ten million digit prime may take several more years." One of the easiest ways for people to join the effort is via the GIMPS project (see

A prize claim must provide the date and time of discovery, and fully disclose all hardware and software used. Each claim must be verified by an independent party knowledgeable in the field of computation, and must be published in a refereed academic journal.