What is setiQuest?

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What is setiQuest?

For centuries humans have looked at the stars and wondered “are we alone?”   Now, setiQuest is an opportunity for you to help answer that question.  In 1960, Frank Drake conducted the first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).  Since then, scientists from many countries have conducted more than 100 projects looking for communication signals from other civilizations.  With the spread of the Internet in the 21st century, it is now possible for humans around the globe to participate in this new SETI program.

You can participate as a software developer, signal detection algorithm developer, or a citizen scientist.


What is SETI?

SETI is an acronym that stands for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  Since we currently have no mechanism for directly discovering intelligence across the vast distances between the stars, we look for something produced by intelligence (at least here on Earth).  We attempt to find evidence of another civilization’s technology.  At the SETI Institute we search for engineered radio signals using the Allen Telescope Array, and for short bright laser pulses using the optical telescopes at Lick Observatory.


The origin of setiQuest

Searching the universe for an intelligent signal is a huge challenge that we at the SETI Institute have been working towards for the past 25 years. However, in 2009, when Jill Tarter received a TED prize and a chance to make “a wish to change the world”, we had the opportunity to move the search to the next level. 

Of all scientific explorations, it seems pretty obvious that SETI should be global and involve all humantity.  The answer to the old, universal, human question “Are we alone?” impacts all of us.   The detection of another technological civilization will recalibrate our place in the cosmos, recalibrate who we are, and potentially trivialize the differences among human Earthlings and thereby extend our future longevity.

setiQuest is a community involvement that will lead to a significant improvement in our ability to search for other intelligent civilizations in the cosmos, and in the process, to use SETI to change the world.  

A message from Jill Tarter

Director, Center for SETI Research, SETI Institute

I personally got hooked on SETI after reading the Cyclops Report my last year in graduate school.  This report was an early 1970s study laying out a roadmap for what engineering developments were needed to detect evidence of a distant technology.  True, it suffered a significant hubris; this was long ago and the report failed to incorporate the forthcoming digital revolution and its influence on how to search for ETI. – Moore’s law was new (or unknown to most people).  Nevertheless the Cyclops study participants scoped the challenges of the exploration.   As I read this report I was captivated by the notion that after millennia of asking priests, philosophers, and other wise individuals if/whether other sentient beings exist in the cosmos – I became aware that the rules had changed.  They changed because we now had tools (telescopes operating at radio and optical frequencies and everything in between) that could be used to do an experiment collecting data from the sky, data that could then perhaps answer this old human inquiry.  As a newly minted PhD, the ability to invoke observational results, rather than belief systems, was a heady and compelling concept – my generation was the first to have this capability!  There’s only one verb: I was hooked.  Following in the footsteps of Morrison, Cocconi, and Drake, I felt that it was time to do the experiment now that there were some tools to use.  I cannot over-stress the “Ah-ha” nature of the Cyclops Report for me.  Right time, right place.  How could I resist? 

50 yearsafter the first search, we’ve accomplished some searching at optical and radio wavelengths.  Our radio searches are now 100 million million times faster and more comprehensive than Frank Drake’s search, Project Ozma, but in truth we’ve hardly begun.  setiQuest is intended to capture the hearts, minds, and eyeballs of humans around the globe to help us improve our search capability.

With the help of the TED community, setiQuest will offer individuals with skills at writing good computer code to help make the code we use to run our observations at the Allen Telescope Array even better.  Until now, real-time SETI observations have relied on custom-built hardware.  Server technologies have now gotten fast enough to allow us to run on commodity clusters.  This provides the opportunity to publish our signal detection code as open source, and invite smart coders around the world to make it better and add capabilities.  Today we do a very good job at finding very narrowband signals buried deep in noise – a good guess for what a deliberately transmitted signal might look like.  But we have only limited sensitivity to signals that are more complex.  With available cloud storage and processing resources, we can provide digital signal processing experts and students with a lot of raw data from the ATA and invite them to develop new algorithms that can find other types of signals that we are now missing.  We’ll take the best of those algorithms and work with the designer and the OS developers to make them run in real-time so that we can add them to our observational quiver.  And finally for everyone else that doesn’t happen to have coding or algorithmic skills, we’d like to involve you by using your eyes to find anomalous patterns in data coming from the ATA.  These patterns aren’t ones we can define right now, or develop algorithms to detect, but your eyes and your brain can find them anyway.  True, most of these anomalies will turn out to be interference generated by terrestrial technologies, but we want you to become part of a global community that can rapidly sort through all the possibilities and perhaps turn up that needle we’ve all been seeking.

That’s my vision of what setiQuest will look like as we roll it out over the next year or so.  But it’s a living community and it will change over time, it will evolve to become more powerful and useful – it will turn into what you make it.