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Illustration by Jeremy Russell

Intelligent Life?

By Annalee Newitz

I HAVE BEEN RUNNING THE SETI@home screensaver on all my computers for almost two years. OK, I still need to download it to my lovely new little ultralight Vaio (neener, neener, my laptop can beat up your laptop!). But back to my point. You've probably heard about SETI@home (www.setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu), the miracle of distributed computing that started at UC-Berkeley and has virally multiplied across the planet until it supports millions of users every day.

A quick refresher: SETI stands for "search for extraterrestrial intelligence." SETI@home is a distributed computer program that allows you to download chunks of semicooked data collected by the Arecibo Radio Observatory. The ET-lovers at Project SERENDIP (seti.ssl.berkeley.edu/serendip/serendip.html) have piggybacked their data-gathering onto other observational projects at Arecibo, allowing them to suck up great big chunks of data about radio waves coming at Earth from outer space.

Using the SETI@home client, ET enthusiasts like me and a zillion other geeks get a chance to help crunch that data by giving our computer processors over to a screensaver that looks for (hopefully) artificial spikes in these incoming radio waves across thousands of frequencies. A really big spike might mean we've found a transmission from folks like us, listening to their version of the BBC 40 light years away. Plus, as you analyze the data, you get a neato little rainbow-colored graph on your computer screen that shows you exactly how much your processor has munched and whether you've found a spike. When you've finished with your data packet, you send it back to the SETI servers at Berkeley and get a new data packet.

This is called distributed computing, because the data processing--which requires massive amounts of power--has been doled out to millions of computers. SETI@home has become so popular that over 2 million nerds are processing SERENDIP data even as I write this. Without spending very much money, the SETI@home crew has built a supercomputer.

Distributed computing is a hot topic right now partly because peer-to-peer (P2P) networks like Napster are one of the Next Big Things in software development. P2P is a form of distributed computing that uses various kinds of software to link multiple individual computers into one massive "gigantor computer" with mondo memory, mondo processing power, or mondo whatever. Once plugged into Napster, say, your ancient IBM clone with its teeny hard drive becomes part of a Mega Hardrive full of zillions of fat music files that are yours to download as you like (as long as you don't want any Metallica).

Most of the P2P visionaries out there are basing their work on the idea that the Internet can be used as a giant collective conversation, a shared space where each of us contributes what we can for the greater good. Even if this "greater good" is merely adding to Charles' rare funk collection, or to Jesse and Jon's database of exploits, the point is to share our personal computer resources to help other people achieve goals they couldn't on their own.

SETI@home is the perfect example of this. With SETI's funding cut down to nil by a government that values bombing China more than saying hello to our galactic neighbors, the SETI distributed computing project allowed dorks like me to contribute to the success of a project that would be impossible without me and my ET-loving peers.

But here's where the going gets ironic. According to Brian McConnell, author of the recent book Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations, SETI researchers are taking a very anti-P2P stance in their work. In McConnell's version of the SETI galactic view, we Earth folks need to be "worried" about alien civilizations with space-faring technology because they might conquer us. On the other hand, he suggests we should hope for a situation where we discover that we're the "first" technologically advanced civilization in the galactic neighborhood, because then we could colonize our ET peers before they get us.

It's all about space Darwinism, according to McConnell, and it's a civilization-eat-civilization universe out there. We'd better get out there into space first, because if we don't, the ETs will hear our radio signals and send out deadly von Neuman probes to kill us or turn us into cattle. But if we as a civilization are intelligent enough to create P2P networks for ourselves, why are we thinking like Bill "Proprietary" Gates when it comes to chatting with extraterrestrials? Captain, there's something wrong with this planet.


Annalee Newitz (ETlover@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who dreams about meeting aliens.

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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