Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Help Find Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

A project called SETIlive, which is funded in part by SETI astronomer, Jill Tarter’s 2009 TED Prize, crowd-sources some of the detective work to citizen-scientists, armed with uniquely powerful pattern-recognition tools: the human eyes and brain.

The radio telescopes that make up the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California pick up a range of radio frequencies when aimed at a star, but they don’t process all of them because there’s so much contamination from radio signals generated on Earth. The only way for SETI searchers to sift through those bands would be to use a lot of computing power. But that’s inefficient, and very expensive. The untapped energy of eager amateurs, however, is practically limitless, and anyone can sign up.

Volunteers get a live feed of one of the messy data bands from the Allen array and have just 90 seconds to scan each new screen grab for interesting anomalies, like a radio blip being picked up by one dish in the array but not others. Since each dish points at a different star, a signal coming from E.T. should appear in just one. If it shows up in two or three dishes, it’s probably a satellite, or an Earth-based signal.

So far, citizen-scientists seem to love the work. SETIlive and are part of a larger, umbrella organization at Zooniverse, which started out as a project called “Galaxy Zoo”, where amateurs classify the types of galaxies in Hubble Telescope images. Zooniverse has expanded to projects that let amateurs classify craters on the moon, test climate models by poring through old weather data, identify different types of whale sounds, and more.

So . . .

Thoughts on these programs? Do you have any interest in participating? Having you already been participating? What of SETI in general? A waste of time? A worthwhile endeavor?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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One Comment

  1. I have done this on and off over the years. I think the odds are pretty thin that they will ever find aliens, but I think the effort is still worth it. Even if they explore every conceivable bandwidth for years and find nothing, I still think that is a valuable result.

    Besides, Michael Crichton was highly critical of SETI so taking part in it is like pissing on his memory.

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