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Where Are They?

Entry 821, on 2008-07-28 at 22:18:13 (Rating 1, Science)

I read a report in the tech news today about a new algorithm which will be used for the SETI@Home project in the future. If you don't know about the project, here's a brief explanation: SETI@Home is a distributed computing project using many Internet-connected computers. It is run from the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Its aim it to find signs of intelligence on other planets (SETI is an acronym for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).

This may sound like silly science fiction stuff, but it isn't. This is a serious research project using the world's largest radio telescope. Analysing the huge amounts of data captured would be beyond any realistic supercomputer but millions of computers attached to the Internet can do the job efficiently (the total computing power is about the same as the fastest supercomputer but it can be sustained indefinitely at little cost). The system works because a small amount of information can be sent to each client for analysis and the results can be collated at a central server.

The SETI@home was released to the public on 17 May 1999. Since then there have been a billion trillion (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000) floating point calculations done and is acknowledged as the largest computation project ever. The total computing time involved is 2 million years.

So its all very impressive and very cool (I have been involved for many years, in fact since the year it was released) but its now coming up to 10 years of operation and how many intelligent alien civilisations have been discovered so far? Well, err, none actually. To be fair, there have been many weird signals (the most well known is known as radio source SHGb02+14a) which will be investigated more carefully but there has been nothing which is obviously of intelligent origin.

So this is a bit strange because just about every piece of relevant research I've seen recently seems to indicate that life is easier to get started than we initially thought. But maybe this isn't really true because that area of research is far from definite. Or maybe simple life is easy but more advanced life leading to intelligence is much harder than we think. Or maybe there is a lot of intelligent life but it doesn't use radio for communications.

Any of these explanations are reasonable and there might be more I haven't even thought of. One astronomer, Seth Shostak, thinks we should find definite signs of intelligent life around the years 2020 to 2025, but this is very speculative, especially considering the potential political, as well as technical barriers, and the significant number of assumptions in the predictive equations like the Drake Equation.

So I think the SETI@Home project is really worthwhile and if it finds of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe that would be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. And the people who donated their computer time (like me) would be part of it. One of them might even make history by being the owner of the computer which makes the discovery!

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Comment 1 (1527) by Anonymous on 2008-07-31 at 20:33:30:

Have you ever thought that the aliens might be so different from us that we would never know what to look for? You know the sort of things in scifi books - like pure energy beings and that sort of stuff.

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Comment 2 (1528) by OJB on 2008-08-01 at 12:14:38:

Of course this possibility has been considered but there are good reasons to think that life might follow similar patterns of evolution everywhere and that radio technology might use predictable methods - at least for a certain period in a civilisation's history.

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