The History of the Setihome Program

SETI, or the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence uses radio telescopes to search the sky for messages from other worlds. The problem is that we don’t know what the pattern of those messages will be, only that there will be a pattern. And, with millions of “channels” of information coming in it is impossible for humans to listen for that elusive message from E.T.

The answer is of course computers. Computers are better at picking up patterns than human are in many ways and they can work twenty four hours a day without a need for a break, but the amount of data that the radio telescopes can bring in far exceeds the amount of data that any single computer can process.

In 1995 as the internet was coming into its own David Gedye came up with a solution for SETI’s insatiable desire for more computer power. They would create a network across the internet connection millions of computers making a virtual supercomputer. Over the next four years he explored the idea and in May 1999 SETI@home was launched.

The concept of Seti@home is one that is becoming more popular in recent years. Most computers sit idle for many hours a day, their computational abilities dormant waiting for a problem to solve. SETI has one of the most important problems in human history that it is attempting to solve. This is a match made in heaven so by downloading the SETI@home screensaver which turns on only when you are not using the computer and adds your computers computational distinctiveness to its own.

What makes this more than just computational charity is that the screen saver shows you what the computer is doing. A series of graphics show you the signals that your computer is currently processing. This is far more interesting to watch than a small box bounce around the screen.

Using these computers to analyze the data gathered from Arecibo SETI hopes to examine the sky visible from that telescope three times. After that, SETI will begin new projects with new and better technology, but you can be certain, they will now allow hundreds of thousands of computers willing and ready to share their computer power to go to waste.

Although SETI has yet to discover any clear signals from extra terrestrial intelligences the idea of sharing computational tasks across the internet is one that has began to spread. Each day and we are beginning to recognize that we no longer have millions of separate computers on earth, instead we have a single massive supercomputer with millions of pieces spread out across the world and if seti@home does nothing but help us tap into that potential then it is a fantasy success.