Monday, February 11, 2008

Why the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI)?

In a previous post, I described how I developed a computing methodology that I called 'multiprocessing', and how a similar, but more elaborate and expansive methodology appeared later on the Internet generally called 'distributed computing'. Distributed computing allows any researcher around the world to set up a research project, one that requires huge amounts of computing, so that volunteers worldwide can easily contribute some of their computer's time to work on the project. Volunteers can elect to contribute to multiple projects.

Just as operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Linix allow multiple programs (also called applications) to share the resources of one computer, BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) allows multiple research projects to share the resources of multiple computers worldwide over the Internet. Currently there are 1,269,740 volunteers with 2,688,370 computers around the world that are connected by BOINC to hundreds of projects (as reported by is the leading project. About 61% of the volunteers run SETI@Home as one of their projects, and SETI@Home uses about 67% of the computers, generating 51% of the credits for work done. If the credits are proportional to the work done as they are supposed to be, than more than half of the BOINC computing is supporting the SETI@Home project.

Most of the other projects are biology research (mostly drug and disease research) or in the fields of climate, cosmology, and mathematics. But SETI is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The SETI software downloads and analyzes radio telescope data, trying to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Most BOINC projects have web sites that provide reports on the progress of the research. For example. on you can get reports on the prime numbers that have been found so far. So I went to to find out what progress has been made on SETI. All I found were discussions about 'progress' meaning the amount of searching that has been done, but nothing about progress finding anything. So I did a more general Google search for SETI progress, and found things like:

We've done a lot of searching ..

We're improving our methods ..

We've found a lot of exo-planets ..

We have detected minerals on Mars that on Earth protect the process of photosynthesis.

Not very impressive. I already knew that many planets orbiting other stars have been found, but nearly all of these are judged unable to support life, and they are too distant for detection of life anyway. And that last one is like finding a sharp knife in a house and concluding that a murder was possible. So I kept searching for SETI progress.

On the web site I read:

At an August 6, 2004 symposium organized by The Planetary Society, titled The Significance of Negative SETI Results, leading SETI experts scratched their heads over the meaning of their failure to receive signals from Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

As a quick summary, this is what the panel of experts said:

There is no news.

We haven't done very much.

We should search vast numbers of stars...

We've thus far probed only a hundred-trillionth of the search space. We still need to cover the other 99,999,999,999,999 hundred trillionths before we can say there are no alien signals to be found.

We'll detect an alien communique within the next two decades.

Maybe within 100 or 200 years.

Maybe 50 or 100 years.

If they really want to contact us, they can.

Think serendipity. We should all be looking for little glitches in our data.

On the web site "What we've seen so far" I found:

Since the launch of The SETI League's Project Argus sky survey in April 1996, our members have detected a few interesting signals. They are depicted here, along with noteworthy results of some prior SETI experiments.

As a quick summary, this is the sort of "interesting signals" that they found:

"HAARP signals reflected not off the ionosphere, but rather off the lunar surface"

"the NASA Stardust spacecraft's re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere"

a possible black hole

"Hydrogen clouds drift[ing] around in the interstellar medium"

".. the signal was most likely terrestrial interference."

".. have not seen a signal like this."

".. Computer interference is suspected."

It is clear that the SETI project is a dismal failure, because if they found something, they would be loudly bragging about it, and even if they were on the track of a good possibility, they would be talking hopefully about it. So why is half of the BOINC processing resources still aimed at SETI after all these years? Why is the SETI project so popular in spite of its persistant failure to find anything significant?

The usual defense is that it is not impossible to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence -- it is just a hard problem that needs more time. (This in spite of such a large-scale effort since 2002.) It is surely a matter of faith to keep believing, to keep hoping, in spite of such a huge failure.

The foundation of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is the premise that life can arise spontaneously from non-life. Since no one has been able to demonstrate this in the laboratory (although many have tried), it is hoped that SETI will show that it has happened elsewhere.

Of course, the SETI faith denies the traditional faith in the Biblical account -- that God created all life. But, ironically, finding life elsewhere in the universe would not disprove the Biblical account, because the Bible tells of created life other than that in this earth. Although the Bible doesn't indicate whether these living creatures reside in this universe or another, it does tell of occasional visits to earth.

The more important issue is whether life arises spontaneously or whether life requires a creator. There are other scientific avenues for examining this issue that are more convincing than the SETI research. One avenue is based on information science -- see my blog articles:

Information From Randomness?

In The Beginning Was Information

Is Encoded Information an Essential Part of the Universe?

Another avenue is biology, which I may discuss another time.

1 comment:

JC said...

Checking (in July, 2010), the SETI software is run by 1,107,120 users of the 1,988,199 users of the BOINC network. SETI is run on 2,682,729 of the 5,355,173 computers on the BOINC network, in 234 countries of the 272 participating countries. Since its inception, SETI has consumed 78,155,930,854 out of 264,879,350,422 of the computer work done by the BOINC network, measured in BOINC 'credits'. That is 30% of all the BOINC work done worldwide, and nothing to show for it!