June 1999
s m u g
net worth
by Leslie Harpold

The Search for Intelligent Life
(begins at home)

I don't watch X-Files and I didn't like Star Wars. I haven't even seen Episode I. I only saw three episodes of Star Trek and that includes the myriad spin-off versions. As of last week, though, I am really into extra terrestrials.

Having discovered the ultimate solution for the passive do-gooder, I feel pretty special. I spend too much time at the computer, and much of it is nonproductive. We've been shown the ways that the web can drive a brand, help give a megaphone to the faintest voices in society. We've seen television shows about the evil of the internet, and entertained our Pump Up the Volume fantasies running our own Shoutcast radio shows. What now? By all accounts, it will be quite some time before we can take the next step and do high quality home video on the web, it will take more bandwidth and less expensive equipment before anything but the Voyeurdorm girls and their hot just turned 18 friends will be able to deliver non stop action. How to fill the time?

This month I have no suggestions as to how to spend time when you're at your computer. This month I have a suggestion for your computer to spend time when it gets a break from you.

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that will harness the power of hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data. There's a small but captivating possibility that your computer will detect the faint murmur of a civilization beyond Earth.

The Seti@home project (SETI being an acronym for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is the most inventive use of distributed computing I have seen. Not the first, but the most clever use of the pitch in and share your personal computing power. Sure, the Mersenne project has a cash prize, but Seti may offer you a crack at taking credit for identifying First Contact. Mersenne, while admirable, is math-y. I can't even conceive of a million digit prime number, and as for distributed ray tracing, well, I've seen the results and until rays trace in the style of Francis Bacon I'm not getting that excited. I've seen enough bad tv to wrap my head around the concept of aliens.

SETI's SERENDIP a system piggybacked on Aricebo, a mega telescope in Puerto Rico, collects about 20 gigs per day of raw data, the power needed to analyze this data would be prohibitivley expensive on an academic's budget. This is where netizens come in to lend a hand. Here's how it works. First, you download and install the screensaver. Then you start receiving chunks of data in small 350k packages, and next time your machine is idle, the screensaver kicks in and uses your prcessor's power to analyze the data, sending the results back to the Berkeley scientists. If you get lazy and forget or too much time passes betweeen you receiving it and sending it back, they automatically assign your chunk to someone else.

You don't have to be connected for your screensaver to process data. SETI only uses your internet connection to send and recieve the data to be analyzed. It's available for Mac, several flavors of unix and Windows, so anyone can play. The effect on your processor - wear and tear, is negligible, and you get to be a key player in real science!

It's well thought out and executed, and to be honest, I'm still not all that enthused about space aliens. I use the screensaver though, and I'm proud of every chunk of data my machines analyze. For me it's less about this project and more about the spirit of the internet, of using my powers not for vanity, but the spirit of a greater goal, to support this kind of thinking. It makes me happy. I may not be motivated by ET, but I am most definitely motivated by and support great thinking and great ideas. Undeniably, the SETI@Home project is both, and I can't help but participate.



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