If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there….then I never really lost it to begin with.
–Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz
It turns out that a technology that was originally used to help search for intelligent life on other planets, has developed into a technology that allows people to share their PC’s idle time to help research treatments for COVID-19.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Life
The SETI Project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) was founded in 1984 with the goal of detecting intelligent life outside earth. It had its roots in the beginning of radio technology.
Although most people would say that is would be great to know if there was intelligent life on other planets (and most people have probably wondered about it at one point or another) it is the type of thing that tends to lose funding during budget cuts.
When SETI started to lose funding, scientists looked for ways to continue their research. They could not cut the cost of renting radio telescopes time or funding arrays of radio telescopes — this is how they collected their data. However, they could think of different ways to listen to and analyze the data.
You have to listen to a lot of signals over time to find one you can prove is being generated by intelligent life. The easiest way to do that is to have computers look at the signals and tag the ones for researchers to look at.
Scientists could purchase a supercomputer to do this, or they could use a group of smaller computers to do this using parallel computing. Both solutions are expensive. Not only do you have to cover the cost of the equipment, SETI would have to house the computers, cool them, and supply power to the CPUs and the massive cooling system to cool off the heat generated by that many computers.
The roots of SETI began with radio technology. In 1899 Nikola Tesla heard what he believed to be radio signals from either space, Venus, or Mars.
The signals were probably just naturally occurring radio signals or interference. We might scoff at Tesla and others for thinking they might be able to receive radio signals from Mars or even communicate with Martians via a two-way radio.
In fairness, at the end of the 19th century, humans had not been in space. It is only in the later part of the 20th century that we have been able to go beyond the telescope and explore space with manned and unmanned missions.
World Community Grid, which supports cutting-edge research into important global humanitarian causes, is looking for volunteers to donate spare computing power to help find treatments for the COVID-19.
In 1999, the SETI project based at U.C. Berkeley created a volunteer distributed computing project, known as grid computing, called SETI@home. Volunteers loaded a program on their home computers to process radio signals when they were not using their computers.
The idea was that most of the time PCs are idle. Even when they are being used, the central processing unit (CPU) is being utilized at a fraction of its capacity.
SETI@home sent files to volunteers’ computers to be processed on a user’s machine during the idle time. Because the program was written to use idle time and not to interfere with what the user was doing, it could be run in the background without users even noticing it was running, adjusted to only run when the user was not using the machine, turned off entirely by the user.
The current program (client) allows volunteers to specify times of day when to run, the maximum percentage of CPU time it can use at once, the maximum about of disk space it will use, and when it will do file transfers.
SETI@home was so successful that the University of California, Berkeley created BIONC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing.) This expanded the client to include other science projects.
BOINC is open source which allowed others to adopt the technology. In 2004, World Community Grid, IBM’s philanthropic initiative, developed grid computing software to power scientific research on health, poverty and sustainability.
Currently one of the projects at the World Community Grid uses computer time to help find treatments for the COVID-19.
It is hard to find a radio signal in space that you can prove is being generated by intelligent life. It takes time, and people are impatient. Why do it? This article explains reasons why research projects may sound silly, but are actually very valuable.
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Experiments that may seem odd almost always have a valuable purpose
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