For many years now, scientists based at Berkley University in the United States have been running a project known as "SETI" - the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The aim of the project is to collate all the signals available from the world's radio telescopes and search through the "background noise" for recognisable patterns which might indicate signals of intelligent origin.
One of the biggest problems they encountered was that radio telescope data was TOO easily available - from the outset, the project was overwhelmed, with the amount of data coming in vastly outstripping the computing resources available to them. To simply "pick and choose" amongst the data was deemed unacceptable, since there is no way to determine without processing the data whether it is more or less likely to contain the elusive signal they are searching for.
As the archive of unprocessed data built up, a plan was hatched to make use of the Internet to "spread the load", and SETI@home was born. The idea is simple - there are millions of computers connected to the internet. The vast majority of these are "personal workstations" such as PCs and Apple Macs, which can spend a lot of their time switched on unattended. The total processor resources "wasted" on screen savers between all these machines is vast. So, how can all this "wasted" processing power be harnessed?
The SETI@home project is quite simple - participants download a small program which runs in the background when their screen saver is active. The program receives "packets" of data e-mailed to the user from SETI, and processes them. After two or three days (on an average PC) the program sends a reply e-mail to SETI containing the results of the packet's processing, along with a request for a new data packet. ( While the data is being processed, the screen saver shows a pretty graphic of the frequencies found in the current signal packet)
At the time of writing, over a hundred thousand individuals and organisations have already "signed up" to the project (which has only been running for less than three weeks!), making SETI@home the largest collaborative computing project in history.
If you have an interest in the science behind ETs, and some form of internet connection, then I think that you will find this project worth a close look. As an added incentive, if your machine provides data which indicates the existence of an extraterrestrial intelligence, you will have a say in naming it!
For more information, visit "http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu".
Peet, May 29th1999