The geeks and the aliens

The geeks and the aliens: By Janelle Brown. Why are the tech industry's best and brightest so determined to spearhead the hunt for extraterrestrials? A look at the SETI-Silicon Valley connection.


Janelle Brown
April 30, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

There are an estimated 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and an estimated half trillion galaxies in the universe. Going by sheer numbers, the odds are that somewhere out there intelligent life exists -- or so say the astronomers at the SETI Institute.

SETI, which stands for "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence," points telescopes into outer space and listens for mysterious radio signals. This is the group made famous last year by the maudlin Jodie Foster film "Contact," and yes, they are hoping someday -- soon -- to tune in little green men.

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In that quest, SETI has quietly been joined by some of the biggest names in high tech: Paul Allen, Gordon Moore, William Hewlett, the late David Packard and Nathan Myhrvold. Some are donating money, others are donating brain power -- and some are even working to harness your computer to help process SETI's data. "Visionaries" from Sun, Intel, Microsoft and Disney's Imagineering pop up all over SETI's documents. All told, geeks are keeping the search for aliens alive.

As Myhrvold puts it, "In a way it is a 'natural' progression. It is the ultimate extrapolation of our current technological world."

Although astronomers have spearheaded small-scale attempts to contact extraterrestrials since 1959, SETI began its official life inside NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., in 1971 with a study called Project Cyclops. Written in part by Barney Oliver, the renowned director of Hewlett Packard Labs, Project Cyclops put forth the proposition that, thanks to modern radio-telescope technology, earthlings could scan the sky for distant civilizations by detecting the microwave signals radiated by their transmitters.

Explains SETI astronomer Dan Werthimer: "'I Love Lucy' left here years ago and has gone past a few thousand stars. Only the nearby stars have seen 'The Simpsons.' The earth is brighter than the sun at television frequencies. All this stuff leaks off our planet unintentionally, so it's possible that other civilizations have technology at least at our capability -- or maybe they're millions or billions of years up on us -- and they would unintentionally leak stuff off their planet."

Twenty years after Project Cyclops set out the initial proposal, the "High-Resolution Microwave Survey" finally began scanning the skies in 1992. A year later, Congress pulled the funding -- primarily because of the protests of an earthbound Nevada senator, Richard Bryan, who just didn't see the point in spending public money ($12 million, at that point) to find "little green men."

That's when Silicon Valley stepped in.

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Technology executives are a coveted demographic for fund-raisers:
open-minded, forward-looking and, most importantly, loaded. So it was
perfectly natural that the SETI astronomers, led by Silicon Valley legend
Barney Oliver, should turn to the inventor's high-tech friends for help.
They listened: Hewlett-Packard founders William Hewlett and David Packard,
Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen anted up
a total of $20 million. When Oliver died in 1995, he left the bulk of his
estate (more than $20 million) to SETI.

"They are the main funders of our effort -- what will help assure our
long-term survivability," says Tom Pierson, executive director of the SETI
Institute. Although the participation of the original four contributors has
always been "from a distance," Pierson affirms that the surviving three
visit the institute and keep up with the issues. He points out, "These are
very smart people, and very well read and studied, and they understand the
sciences behind it. You don't give million-dollar gifts annually to a
corporation if you don't know what it's going for."

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Reborn as Project Phoenix, SETI's current modus operandi is to search
the airwaves for signals from the 1,000 stars within a 200-light-year
distance that are the most like the sun. Feeding millions of frequencies
through a custom-made supercomputer, they listen to any signal that might
be strong enough to reach us, including "beacons" (intentional signals sent
out by extraterrestrials who, like us, might be wondering if someone else
is out there) as well as leakage similar to the radio cloud that Earth
sends out every day.

And even as the SETI Institute scans the sky, so are other smaller
SETI-related researchers -- including SETI programs at UC-Berkeley and
Harvard, in Australia and Italy, and the 900 or so amateur astronomers of
the SETI League, who
tune in via backyard satellite dishes hoping to hear mysterious messages
from outer space.

It's a long shot, and the people involved know it. But they're still
optimistic.

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Says Greg Klerkx, SETI's director of development, "If there were only
10,000 stars and we searched 1,000 and didn't find anything, it'd be a
little more discouraging. But if you have got 400 billion to pick from,
it's like standing on a beach and grabbing a pinch of sand and looking for
a diamond. It's unlikely. That pinch is what we're looking at with Project
Phoenix, and with the next generation search we'll expand that to a
handful."

This, of course, is why the technology industry is so crucial to SETI.
Scanning the signals from each star takes a long time and requires tons of
computer processing power and enormous telescopic arrays. If that
computing power is increased exponentially, so is the amount of information
SETI can examine and the sensitivity of the signals it will detect.

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Hollywood's recent obsession with all things alien has certainly helped
the SETI cause. So has the exploration of Mars and recent scientific
discoveries like the promising-looking clouds of dust that appear to be
developing planetary systems likeours.

SETI's work has never been more visible, but Project Phoenix is at a
critical point. The Cyclops blueprint for SETI's search is almost 30 years
old. The current Project Phoenix survey of 1,000 stars is expected to be
completed in 2000. With the end of their project looming, the question the
astronomers are asking is, simply, what next?

Last year, SETI formed the Science and Technology Working Group, an
advisory board with the sole function of examining the premise of Project
Phoenix and envisioning how SETI can exploit the technical accomplishments
of the 21st century. Besides 27 astronomers and scientists, the group
boasts a small who's-who of high-tech brain power: Greg Papadopoulos, chief
technology officer of Sun Microsystems; Nathan Myhrvold, CTO of Microsoft;
Danny Hillis, Disney fellow and founder of Thinking Machines; David Liddle,
Xerox PARC alumnus and co-founder of Interval Research; Len Cutler, 41-year
veteran of Hewlett Packard Labs; Richard Wirt, director of Intel's
Microcomputer Labs.

The techies have met several times with their scientist counterparts
for three-day brainstorming marathons, where they discuss science,
engineering, computer and signal processing and telescope design and
suggest how SETI might utilize upcoming breakthroughs in these fields.
Their job is to envision where human technology -- and, for that matter,
alien technology -- could be going.

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Myhrvold, for example, believes that his background in physics and
computers (he holds degrees in geophysics, space physics and math, plus a
Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics) helps him "envision alien
computer science."

Envisioning alien computer science? Well, consider the fact that SETI
has focused its search on interstellar microwave leakage. In Myhrvold's
view, an alien civilization with technology more advanced than ours would
never be leaking radio noise unintentionally.

He postulates, "Human signals have been simple and easy to detect. But
very soon there will be no more simple signals on earth -- everything is
moving to compressed digital transmission, which is difficult to tell from
white noise. If the aliens have any computer science, then their own
signals will be nearly impossible to detect -- except for a brief 100-year
or so window of simple signals. Many other SETI people have not had that
view, but I believe it very strongly, because computer science and
economics both take you inexorably in that direction."

Besides brainstorming, the participating technologists are also
contributing to post-meeting calculations and research. Hewlett Packard's
Cutler, for example, is researching precision timing to extrapolate how
upcoming satellite arrays might coordinate their searches.

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Cutler says he's excited by the technical challenges -- and by the
chance to make history. He solemnly explains, "It certainly would be
interesting if other civilizations were found through this -- it would
probably be one of the most exciting things for mankind in many, many
centuries."

Not all the contributors are so sober about their contributions. As
Myhrvold puts it, "One friend of mine says that the SETI Institute isn't
interested in talking to me because they think I am smart or knowledgeable.
They just aren't sure I am human!"

The participating technologists say that their industry colleagues
haven't given them much grief about their new pet project (Myhrvold's
comment: "When you compare it to some of the other crazy things I do, it
isn't really all that odd"). But you can't, after all, be completely
serious about a topic like aliens -- especially when the SETI astronomers
and their contributors have to deal with conspiracy theorists who suspect
them of hiding Roswell aliens (or perhaps just ET) in their laboratory, and
government officials who think they're off their rocker.

So SETI's astronomers have learned to be lighthearted about their job:
as astronomer Seth Shostak recently answered the phone, "Oh, it's been a
bad day. The power went out and the aliens in the freezer defrosted, and
now they're abducting our next-door neighbors for experiments."

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Currently, the SETI Institute is using one custom-designed
supercomputer and one main telescope to conduct its surveying; its plans
are much more ambitious. In the works, if the funding comes through, is an
array of thousands of off-the-shelf radio antennas, strung together, which
would increase their sensitivity to weak signals at least tenfold.

But the more stars they can survey, the more processing power they need
to read the signals they take in. Says Dan Werthimer, director of the
Berkeley SETI program, "It's a tech-limited game. The computers are doing
the listening, and the more computer power you have, the better job you can
do at this."

Long term, SETI's Science and Technology Group is tackling this issue.
Short term, Werthimer thinks he might have found the key to finding
processing power. Born from a brainstorm by a former Sun and Starwave
employee, and promulgated by astronomers at UC-Berkeley and the University
of Washington, Werthimer's SETI@Home project plans to
process these signals using a distributed network of idle computers:
personal, home computers. Your computer, if you like.

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It works like this. SERENDIP is a SETI system that "piggybacks" on
Arecibo Observatory, a 1,000-foot dish in Puerto Rico (a dish so big, I'm
informed, that it would hold 10 billion bowls of corn flakes). SERENDIP
records 20 gigabytes of information every day and stores it at the
SETI@Home server.

People around the world will be able to get a copy of the SETI@Home
screensaver and download a .25-megabyte chunk of data from the SETI@Home
server. During the computer's down time, an educational screensaver will
run in the foreground while in the background the data is searched for
alien frequencies. When finished, the screensaver will log back in to
SETI@Home, upload the processed data and download a new chunk.

So far, 92,000 people have signed up to test out the SETI@Home
screensaver. If those volunteers actually turn out when the project
launches next fall, the processing power of the SERENDIP project should
increase tenfold from its current 168 million-channel processing capacity.

What Werthimer is talking about is the world's biggest scientific
distributed computing project -- a fact that has caused the computer
industry to sit up and take notice. Arthur C. Clarke, author of "2001: A
Space Odyssey," has become a project spokesman. Sun, which has already
experimented with distributed networks for science (a 120-machine network at Berkeley),
has donated multiple machines to the SETI@Home project. Sun is also
considering contributing the down time of its entire network of company
machines (30,000 of them) to the project.

"Distributed computing is our model, so we are very pleased to see it
being demonstrated in such a visible way," says Jean Griffin-Holst,
director of marketing for Sun's educational grants program.

Sun in particular seems bitten by the SETI bug. SETI astronomers like
Shostak regularly give lectures at the campus, which are heavily attended
by awestruck Sun employees. The meetings are "like going to church," says
Griffin-Holst, and most attendees come away eager to get involved. She
explains, "It's the unknown -- it's adventure, it's the new frontier, it's
something we haven't cracked. Everybody's still wondering, and whoever
figures it out is going to be an important person in history."

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That Silicon Valley's technical executives -- the übergeeks of the
high tech world -- would get involved in the search for little green men is
actually quite natural. The stereotype of the techie-wiz who grew up
building his own ham radios, reading back issues of sci-fi magazines and
futuristic comic books and reciting the plot twists of every "Star Trek"
episode ever made isn't that far off. Even the older generations of CEOs
experienced the post-World War II alien crazes, when cinemas packed seats
with B-movie fare like "It Came From Outer Space."

"It can fairly be said that all of us, when we were children, were
science-fiction buffs, and some of us still are. What happened with each of
us is that we matured and realized science fiction was exactly that --
fiction," explains SETI's Pierson. "But the science still existed, and our
fascination remained and in fact intensified -- but to the real science,
and not the fiction side."

Perhaps the computer-industry execs don't hang out in alt.tv.x-files.
But wouldn't the natural extension of mature geekdom be an interest in the
more real-world -- and scientifically interesting -- search for intelligent
life? After all, we're talking radio waves, not spaceships.

Put it this way: After you've spent your life both imagining and
building what was once considered science fiction (global information
networks! Virtual worlds and avatars! Computers that can beat human grand
masters at chess!), the natural next step is to ponder an even
further-flung future -- alien technology, intergalactic transmissions,
extraterrestrials who could be even more brilliant than we are.

"Technologists in general are visionaries -- they're really thinking
about how science and technology can affect the future, how it can make
life different in positive ways," says SETI's Klerkx. "Because of the
nature of that mind-set, they see SETI as something like that -- a
larger-than-life visionary endeavor that, when it's successful, will really
change the world."

Contacting aliens may turn out to be no more laughable than cyberspace
was to our parents. As Griffin-Holst puts it: "We work on technologies that
20 years ago people would have said, 'You're crazy' if you'd said this was
possible. Where is the line between fact and fiction?"


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown



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