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2020-03-13
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Sunset on SETI@home

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Tagged As: Aliens, Astronomy, SETI, Science, and Space

SETI is the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence which is an effort participated in by a signature consortium of organizations and agencies, not at all a crowd of alien conspiracy theorists in the desert. The SETI institute itself began in 1984 but stemmed from research supporting the Drake Equation postulated in 1961. Part of the effort involved scanning the heavens looking for evidence of alien life in the form of radio transmissions. As radio telescopes improved in a quality and collection capacity, the amount of data quickly began to overwhelm SETI's ability to process everything.

Following the Prime Number Search and distributed.net, researchers opted to utilize free cycles of volunteer computers to process this data. On May 17th, 1999 the SETI@home project began. Over the next two decades, the project achieved nearly 2 million participants although the actual active participant count was significantly lower at any given time. Also, the cumulative processing power of SETI@home clearly ebbed and flowed over time, and while it is not classified as a supercomputer itself, the combined processing power of the project has at times exceeded that of the most powerful supercomputers. To accommodate the massive distributed nature of SETI@home, computer scientists at Berkeley created BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), a framework for scientific applications to use distributed computing and allow for casual owners to decide which projects to support.

After more than two decades of computing, SETI@home is shuttering the servers to the public. Now faced with the inverse of their problem from 2008, a lack of users, SETI@home has processed so much of the raw data the scientists were outpaced for analysis. Particularly after the GPU modules were introduced, the SETI@home clients processed so many tasks that users were often faced with gaps where no new data existed. What kept this distributed project running for two decades? Researchers Élise Tancoigne and Jérôme Baudry wrote an article, Stars In Their Eyes, analyzing the people, the technology, and the science behind SETI@home and concluded:

"The story of SETI@home is therefore not a tale of the democratization of astronomy, but the story of a new kind of technological artefact capable of pooling the output capacity of computers all over the world. This artefact cannot be uncoupled from the common normative order by which it is governed, which takes the form of a vast, competitive game. Rather than bringing humans face to face with alien lifeforms, this order establishes a rivalry between human users operating through their machines—or, perhaps, between machines operating through their human users. In seeking to ground the origin story of citizen science in the specific evolution of SETI@home, by virtue of its irrefutable quantitative success or its lofty foundational goal of uniting the American people through science, we overlook the very thing that has allowed the project to endure for so long, piling work units onto work units—namely, the commitment of a small number of participants with a passion for the apparatus itself."

I was certainly suckered into that machine myself having joined the SETI@home project two days into its existence and achieving a peak of #38 for my sign-up date and a highest rank of #4205 globally in BOINCstats. Over twenty years of participating, I had more than 41 different computers connected at various points and frequently used the SETI@home client as a common computational tool to compare my machine performances. In the end, nobody ever found the alien invasion I photographed coming at us from Sirius.

My personal participation varied over the years with stronger machines and a hiatus for cryptocurrencies.



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