Imagine getting into bed tonight. You dock your phone in its charger, set the alarm, and, just before dimming the lights, you start up your new app. It invites hackers to take over your phone.

This isn't a nightmare. It's the future of the gig economy.

In the coming year, you'll hear a lot about the next wave of the decentralized sharing economy. But it's not about vacation homes or cars. It's about distributing computing power over a large network of computers and devices to accomplish complex tasks, ranging from mathematical calculations to cryptocurrency mining. All it takes is what I call "gigware": a benevolent form of the malware hackers use to break into your computers and phones that generates a tangible benefit to companies and individuals.

Nearly four billion internet users are spread around the world. Each owns an average of three devices. So there's always a gigantic pool of processing power sitting dormant. Sharing and pooling such power isn't exactly new. In 2002, researchers at Berkeley's Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (cheekily nicknamed Boinc) realized that if some of us allowed our devices to be hijacked while we slept, it would be possible to simulate the power of a supercomputer, which could then be put to good use. Today, more than 156,000 people donate idle processing time to worthy projects such as the Quake-Catcher Network, which looks for seismic activity, and SETI@home, which searches the universe for extraterrestrial life.

What's new is that consumers can now use mobile devices--and will soon be able to use other connected devices in the home--to do the same thing. Entrepreneurs are building smart businesses on that idle time. Just as people use platforms like Airbnb to rent out their properties, and Turo to lend their cars, the newest gigware lets businesses use your smartphones and computers in exchange for credits you can spend elsewhere, or for real money. Since the systems are distributed and decentralized, private data is safeguarded. (Still, caveat usor: There haven't been any breaches yet, but there could be in the future.)

Consider the Golem Network, a startup that allows users to exchange idle power for Golem tokens (a cryptocurrency). Anyone can lease spare computation resources to the network. Requesters are matched with such renters; prices will be based on machine performance and reputation. Devices will process tasks like training machine-learning algorithms or rendering graphics. Once tasks are completed, payment is sent.

And there's a lot of money going around. Cryptocurrencies are wildly volatile, but in June, Golem was worth more than $300 million, according to CryptoBriefing.com. Its network is expected to include video-game developers, graphic designers, and movie producers who seek supercomputing power without super­computing costs. Gridcoin, a startup built on Boinc, rewards volunteers with coins they can use at online marketplaces like Cointopay, which sells vintage Gucci handbags and Hermès belts. (It also sells less savory items--it is a crypto market, after all.) Golem and Gridcoin represent a new kind of meta-platform, where consumers, businesses, and the platform developer can all benefit.

Gigware works for barter markets of interest to businesses, too. Washington, D.C.-based Gladius is a startup that trades spare bandwidth and processing power for tokens that pay for private web hosting--it promises to use all that power to thwart denial-of-service attacks, which can bring a company's website down for days.

My favorite just might save America's beleaguered news industry. Technologist and entrepreneur Orlando Watson is building Honeycomb, gigware for a free press. Eventually, it will invite consumers to let their mobile phones be used for complex calculations overnight, to earn credits that pay for digital subscriptions to newspapers and magazines. Who knows? Soon, you might be paying your favorite writers directly with credits you earned while sleeping.

From the November 2018 issue of Inc. Magazine