Crowd-Sourcing the Alien Hunt


by Tim Moran

When last we checked in on SETI -- the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project -- Jill Tarter, the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, had just helped set up SETIQuest.org to make vast amounts of SETI data available to the public for processing.

Her idea was for "citizen scientists" to visually search through this data for anything that looked suspicious or anomalous. According to a recent interview, Tarter is not satisfied. Now she wants to kick the distributed analysis of radio signals up a notch.

"We'd like to take the next step and invite all of the smart people in the world who don't work for Berkeley or for the SETI Institute to use the new Allen Telescope. To look for signals that nobody's been able to look for before because we haven't had our own telescope; because we haven't had the computing power," said Tarter.

Tarter describes the Allen Telescope as a Large Number of Small Dishes Telescope that uses consumer technologies to cut down on the complexity. "We've changed the paradigm and brought the cost down. I hope that we'll use it to change the world by detecting evidence of another technology or by discovering some new astrophysical phenomenon that no one yet thought of," she explained.

Her plan is to "release a new API that we've co-developed with a startup called Cloudant that will allow people to compile and debug their code locally and then upload it and operate using EC2 resources that Amazon has provided."

So, if you are one of those smart people not at Berkeley here's your chance to code a better search algorithm that will help Tarter find an earth analog out there. "That's going to make a big difference in people's perceptions about life elsewhere," said Tarter. "So far, the planetary systems that we're finding look a bit strange when compared to ours. But when we actually find analogs, people will begin to say, 'Wow, maybe there are other technological civilizations out there.'"

Tarter's a bit out there, too--but I guess you never know.