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SETI Institute Is Looking For a Few Good Algorithms 98

Posted by Soulskill
from the pulling-a-netflix dept.
blackbearnh writes "For years, people have been using SETI@Home to help search for signs of extraterrestrial life in radio telescope data. But Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, wants to take things to the next level. Whereas SETI@Home basically used people's computers as part of a giant distributed network to run a fixed set of filters written by SETI researchers, Tarter thinks someone out there may have even better search algorithms that could be applied. She's teamed with a startup called Cloudant to make large volumes of raw data from the new Allen telescope available, and free Amazon EC2 processing time to crunch the data. According to Tarter: 'SETI@Home came on the scene a decade ago, and it was brilliant and revolutionary. It put distributed computing on the map with such a sexy application. But in the end, it's been service computing. You could execute the SETI searches that were made available to you, but you couldn't make them any better or change them. We'd like to take the next step and invite all of the smart people in the world who don't work for Berkeley or for the SETI Institute to use the new Allen Telescope. To look for signals that nobody's been able to look for before because we haven't had our own telescope; because we haven't had the computing power.'"
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SETI Institute Is Looking For a Few Good Algorithms

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  • Singularity (Score:3, Interesting)

    by lobiusmoop (305328) on Monday July 12, 2010 @05:36PM (#32879368) Homepage

    Maybe it'll all be sorted out retrospectively following the singularity. There's a big crossover between AI and data mining/pattern recognition after all.

    Might make a good plot for a novel... ;)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 12, 2010 @05:37PM (#32879388)

    print "WOW!"

  • by arc86 (1815912) on Monday July 12, 2010 @05:41PM (#32879430)

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from noise. I remembered hearing this in school so I searched and found this paper. []

    As I understand SETI has always been searching for narrowband signals in the past. But our technology is moving toward spread spectrum signals for more efficient use of bandwidth, making our transmissions appear more like noise to anyone who doesn't know the encoding scheme. Aliens could be doing/have done the same. So good luck, scientists!

    • by 32771 (906153)

      We should better look for industrial uses of RF like microwave ovens and such. At least we will know how long it takes the other guys to warm up yesterdays dinner.

      • by skids (119237)

        Well, if there's actually any such thing as usable "wormholes" (dubious, I know) and assuming there's an emission at the ingress/egress then there would be a time correlation between ships entering and exiting. Maybe they should be looking for unusual correlations between different, widely spaced pixels instead of signals from a point source. At the very least they might discover some kind of neato naturally occurring entangement-based phenomena.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kalidasa (577403)
      We're far enough away from any likely candidate systems that we would only pick up very high power omni-directional signals - in other words, intentional beacons. Such a beacon is unlikely to be highly encoded (though there might be an associated signal that *is* highly encoded, and to which there is a pointer in the beacon signal). In other words, we don't have to worry too much about the Kolmogorov complexity of extra-terrestrial signals, because we won't be "overhearing" anything.
    • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:03PM (#32879744)

      But would such "noise" get past a zipf analysis? ('s_law). Even compressed and encrypted data doesn't lose order.

      • by rm999 (775449) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:51PM (#32880358)

        If you take truly compressed data, which resembles uniform noise, you will see a uniform distribution, not the one described in Zipf's law.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by arc86 (1815912)
        (This is not my field, but) I think a good way to state it is that if you are sending a data stream that has any order or predictability to it, you are not using your communication resources most efficiently. Surely the aliens wouldn't have truly optimal efficiency, but as they get smarter they will make it harder and harder for us to find them. (Ha. Maybe the efficiency is a happy side-effect.)
        • by Surt (22457)

          Help me out, I don't know the physics:
          Does the signal vs noise issue hide the fact that you are using a powerful transmitter to cross large distances? Power on a channel that has no naturally occurring phenomenon to make it would seem to be a dead giveaway for intelligent communication.

          • by arc86 (1815912)
            The cosmic microwave background is everywhere, at all frequencies. Any signal you send has to be stronger than this. But wait, if you use spread spectrum signals, you can actually receive a signal with a power spectral density that's lower than this noise floor! So there could be alien signals lurking below the CMB, but we have no chance of finding them without guessing their code. And as the codes get more complex and more efficient, they become more impossible to guess.
    • by gmezero (4448) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:14PM (#32879884) Homepage

      SETI as designed is incapable of even detecting and decoding something akin to the Arecibo message, so I'm always puzzled at how they think they're actually going to know when they have hot data for real. I applaud the effort but I've always felt it was more of a feel-good activity for people to join in on. Hmm....

    • by DriedClexler (814907) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:31PM (#32880118)

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from noise. I remembered hearing this in school ...

      Well, to be more precise, it follows as an implication of:

      1) Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Clarke's 3rd Law.)
      2) Maximally compressed data is indistinguishable from noise. (Theorem in information theory.)

      A sufficiently advanced civilization will ("magically") hit the theoretical compression maximum, and that will look like random noise. (Anyone's head hurting yet?)

    • by ascari (1400977) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:37PM (#32880186)

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from noise.

      So those noise making things that we heard at the World Cup actually were a sign of intelligence?????

    • by should_be_linear (779431) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:40PM (#32880232)
      I guess we will also in 100 years or so realize that we emit nothing but noise, and short distance one for that matter (Wi-Fi, some future gen). So, if we want to be visible to potential neighbors, we must establish "pulsing station", which emits something intelligent and easily detectable, like prime numbers. But it is unlikely it will be old fashioned radio signal. It is probably hard to detect from such distances because it is destroyed by objects on its way (stars, galaxies, small objects, gas, whatever). Maybe neutrinos, such pulse could pass trough everything on its way, and maybe there is way to pickup that broadcast somehow on the other side (if there is, they will know how). So, maybe it is just to early for this sort of projects, there is homework on inter-galactic broadcast to do, and one that actually make sense, not analog TV.
  • If they're already looking at the Shannon entropy of the Fourier Transform over a Markov chain of prime numbered frequencies then I've shot my wad.
  • Just wait and see what kinds of interesting "patterns" hordes of uninformed basement "researchers" can come up with given this huge dataset.

    I predict hilarity.

    • I'm more worried the RIAA will claim alien copyright infringement.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by brainboyz (114458)

        Are you kidding? Perfect prior art once and for all. "Your honor, we received the allegedly infringing work from a radio station broadcasting from 20,000 light years away which means it was produced and transmitted well over 19,900 years before it was copywritten on Earth. Based on current laws on Earth, that puts it firmly into the public domain by now, not withstanding any unknown copywrite laws in effect in this galaxy and/or cluster."

    • JFK's killer is in space!
  • I don't know about the specifics of analyzing radio waves to search for intelligible communication, but I can suggest one thing. The Kepler telescope set out to hunt for earth-like planets that may contain life. The SETI project as far as I can tell is scanning every part of the sky without discrimination. I suggest that Kepler and SETI team up so that when Kepler finds a planet that is capable of supporting intelligent life, SETI will point its telescopes to it and then run whatever algorithms you have to
    • I'm absolutely sure once a planet like that is found that SETI will point the telescopes at it for an extremely close look. Until then they may as well search around randomly while they've got the time and funding anyway.

  • Ok, I don't know anything about this stuff but basically SETI is a big radio telescope array right? And we get data from all these stars using other radio telescopes right? So at some point we take the data of stuff we know (stars, whatever else) and take it out of the SETI picture right?

    That leaves us with a lot of radio noise leftovers, but is that what SEIT is picking through? Do they target certain stars for a while hoping that a body in orbit happens to have been sending out signals?

    Or is SETI listenin

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Ok, I don't know anything about this stuff but basically SETI is a big radio telescope array right?

      SETI []

    • by brainboyz (114458)

      They've done a mix of celestial-body-targeted and sky-sweep listening. Usually the first is used as a second look for interesting signals found with the second.

  • SETI is pretty much fumbling in the dark on where to look. The really interesting parts going on now in my opinion is the search for exoplanets, with better equipment we'll soon start having real targets to listen to. It's entirely possible that we've missed it simply because there's been no antenna pointing in the right direction long enough. After all, life as we know it takes millions of years to develop - it's not like they're going to ping us every five seconds "Is there life now?", at least not after

  • Now they tell us. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rickb928 (945187) on Monday July 12, 2010 @05:58PM (#32879694) Homepage Journal

    So this is the beginning of the contest for better algorithms (ignoring how ee measure if they are better, since no one's found the data they are looking for in the first place), and then of course a new round of analyzing the data again.

    - Issue call for better algorithms.

    - Reprocess the data.

    - Find nothing.

    - Must be the algorithm.

    - Repeat.

    SETI will never die. It will just question its assumptions.


    • Sure, but even a fruitless quest delivers long-term benefits indirectly in the form of tools, techniques and experience which can be applied to more terrestrial use.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by khallow (566160)

      SETI will never die. It will just question its assumptions.

      Why should it die? Keep in mind that we already have one group of sentient, radio broadcasting beings.

    • by Surt (22457)

      I think we can stop with seti when we've visited all the planets in this galaxy. Picking up broadcasts from other galaxies is pretty pointless assuming the speed of light is really the limit.

    • - ???

      - Wait, where does this plan get profitable?

  • by v(*_*)vvvv (233078) on Monday July 12, 2010 @05:58PM (#32879696)

    I don't doubt that there is life elsewhere, there just has to be, right.

    I also don't doubt that space travel is possible, though this may well be.

    What I am beginning to doubt is if intelligent life really survives long enough. Seriously, the more intelligent we get, the more damage we do, and it seems that extinction is an inevitable consequence of any combination of freedom and destructive power, aka technology, over any long period of time.

    One of these days someone will trip on a cord or spill their coffee, and we are all going to die!!!

    • by mhajicek (1582795)
      Seriously that's not too far out. It may be that most intelligent species extinctify themselves within a few hundred years of their industrial revolution.
  • by thestudio_bob (894258) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:04PM (#32879762)
    if data contains alien_signal then
    alert("Found Alien!!! Prepare for destruction!!!)
    end if
  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:10PM (#32879826)

    Some civilizations will, for a short period of time, use detectable radio as a means of communication, but I suspect that there are very few of these at the same point in their technological development as we are. It would make more sense to look for objects that are almost certainly artifacts. Geometrically placed stars moving in the same direction at the same speed. The infrared signature of Dyson spheres. Anything that's too geometrically perfect to be natural. Anything that's accelerating//decelerating relative to it's surroundings. In our own solar system, what would an asteroid mine tailing look like, and does anything look like that?

    • by gmezero (4448)

      "but I suspect that there are very few of these at the same point in their technological development as we are"... you forgot the rest of that sentence ... "today, only thousands if not millions of years ago."

    • by grumbel (592662) <> on Monday July 12, 2010 @08:00PM (#32881232) Homepage

      The chance to detect radio waves that leaked out from an alien civilization are rather slim, as technology moves forward and thus accidental radio broadcasts quickly become undetectable (lower power, better compression, etc.). So its really about intentionally send signals and for those radio waves are simply the best bet, as they are much easier to produce then any stellar size constructions, they are also easy to detect and they also allow you to actually submit real information. Arranging a few stars tells you that aliens are real, but nothing more and you probably spend a few million or billion years moving them around.

      • Actually, I'm sort of OK with "aliens are real" at this point. I figure there's time to exchange recipes later.

      • by Vasheron (1750022)

        Arranging a few stars...

        Do you have any idea just how impossible such a task would be? It makes for good science fiction, but the laws as we know the say no.

        • by grumbel (592662)

          A swarm of solar sail powered gravity tugs might work, it might take a long long while and you'd be limited to arrangement thats are gravitationally stable (i.e. no smiley face drawings) and you better pick something that looks interesting from all directions, but I don't think the laws of nature make it impossible, just really really difficult. Not sure however if you reach your target before the star burns out.

  • "SETI Institute Is Looking For a Few Good Algorithms"

    You misspelled "Aliens"

  • by BigBadBus (653823) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:25PM (#32880048) Homepage
    But those of us who were around when the programme kicked off in 1999 got a bit peeved when it was found that we were processing the same workunits over and over again, and then there was the "problem" when it was announced that the clients weren't optimised for the scanning algorithms. A lot of people packed their bags and left the SETI@home project. Myself? I got a little annoyed when it was announced that new ideas for searching through the data were announced...and we'd have to start all over again. Lets hope that whatever is organised next time is a bit better, well, organised :-)
  • I tried decoding some of those signals. The only thing I got was this really big Mersenne prime.

  • by BlueCoder (223005) on Monday July 12, 2010 @07:42PM (#32880990)

    Sorry to rant a bit but why the hell would a civilization sent out a radio signal from their planet? Look at us, all we do is "listen" but we don't build any transmitters capable of transmitting a signal across a thousand light years. Transmit first, listen second.

    But wait, what if they are capable of interstellar travel, they could send an invasion fleet... we are paranoid, why wouldn't another species be as well?

    So what to do? One you don't send a signal from your planet. Two you design your signal to be easily found; found by another species not even listening randomly for a signal. Answer: you build a spacecraft and send it someplace interesting. Some place an astronomer would find interesting and you either transmit from there or somehow you modulate the natural phenomena to carry a signal for you.

    You would have three types of signals. The first signal would be to get your attention and make you wait and listen for the second signal which would contain enough information (location, frequency, polarity, whatever) to direct you to a third signal that would actually contain an entire database worth of information.

    For an example of a type one signal I don't think it's too far outside possibilities that in the future we might discover a way to generate gravity waves and while they might not travel very far they might be strong enough to influence a star, white dwarf, neutron star, nebula. Imagine one day an astronomer looks at a nebula only to think.. hmmm, that part there sure looks like an arrow...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by O('_')O_Bush (1162487)
      "Sorry to rant a bit but why the hell would a civilization sent out a radio signal from their planet? Look at us, all we do is "listen" but we don't build any transmitters capable of transmitting a signal across a thousand light years. Transmit first, listen second."

      I hope you're trolling.

      Welcome to 80 years ago. Our civilization has been spamming decipherable signals at the speed of light s
      • Most ofn the signal we sent out will have gone below noise floor after 1 light year, so by our nearest neighbor sun would be already not recognizable. That nicve picture *DO NOT* take into account the reverse square law. The only one we can pretend is MAYBE recognize a few light year away is the arecibo signal. And that was a *3 MINUTES* signal. Hint : it was not a "ping" to show us, it was only a technical demonstration that it can be done. Face it, using our own waste of signal into space from start of b
      • by psydeshow (154300)

        Welcome to 80 years ago. Our civilization has been spamming decipherable signals at the speed of light since it's been able to.

        My alien day lasts 160 years, and I slept in this morning so missed your TV signals. But your beacon was unmistakeably sent by a tasty species, and I'm kinda hungry now, etc.

    • by snap2grid (630315)
      Sorry to rant a bit but why the hell would a civilization sent out a radio signal from their planet?

      Doesn't even need to be a civilisation. There are commercial services available for individuals or organisations to broadcast whatever the hell they feel like into space for whatever reason. IIRC SFX magazine used to broadcast a .pdf of the current issue each month. Reasons don't have to be rational.

  • Cloudant is a Y-Combinator company whose founders have more than 10 years of experience managing multi-petabyte datasets.

    Y Combinator is a new kind of venture firm specializing in funding early stage startups. We help startups through what is for many the hardest step, from idea to company. We invest mostly in software and web services. And because we are ourselves technology people, we prefer groups with a lot of technical depth. We care more about how smart you are than how old you are, and more about the quality of your ideas than whether you have a formal business plan.

    Ironic, if ET is discovered by the kids down at your local middle school who have yet to outgrow their sweet tooth for Reese's Pieces.

  • It's like back when analog was around and trying to find the right position for the cheap antenna because you couldn't afford something better... except with SETI you can't be reasonably sure there's something to be found or the Intergalactic Space Government hasn't forced people to switch to digital yet.

  • GPU Algorithms?? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by gabereiser (1662967)
    What always amazes me (besides the argument that SETI project will never know if it actually has anything) is the fact that a lot of the data could be processed faster on the GPU than the CPU. Why not use some OpenCL or Cuda or DirectCompute to harness parallel computing power ON TOP of the current schema? Processing Perlin Noise on the CPU is ~5x slower than on the GPU these days so why not map the data to a texture and run the filters on the GPU instead?
  • I don't understand this. Okay... so we're listening for signals coming from outerspace. These signals travel at the speed of light. Say we hear something that originated from 300 light years away... that means that it was 300 years ago when they emitted that signal. So in essence, if WE send out a "Hello?"... we're likely to get back a "What??" 300 years later. I really don't understand the logic, but more power to ya.
    • What they care for is finding other civilisation that way. Already knowing *somebody* is existing would be an incredible knowledge and confirmation to our theory that "we are not alone". You might not find that great, but to some of us , this would be an incredible finding. That said, I don#t think SETI will ever come to anything valid.
      • I agree completely. Finding any evidence of intelligent life, other than ourselves would be a huge leap for the human race. I find that thought to be fascinating. It's things like ALH84001, ancient Mayan/Sumerian/Egyptian artifacts and the fact that we received a short "message" from space that corresponded to the plaque on-board the Voyager probe... that stuff really blow my mind. There's bound to be life out there that we are oblivious to, and anyone who thinks differently needs to open their mind a bit.
  • Check your inbox. -- S.R. Hadden
  • I dream up, test and use signal analyses, but don't code (not since AppleSoft). I rely on others for that, but they have to have a grip on time series, especially oscillatory/pseudo-periodic signals. My source of study material in the brain, but I've readily adopted techniques from things like radio astronomy, and others have adopted some of mine.

    I've got a set of algorithms in mind that'd detect interesting signals for later examination. Two of three already have open source variants. The third is mine, an

  • SETI has been interesting only in that it has demonstrated, at least at our technology level, nobody is home and using electromagnetism to communicate. The next level of communication is utilizing "ansible" technology which leverages quantum entanglement, aka Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Quantum entanglement has been demonstrated recently at a distance of 10 miles, and there is no reason to believe any amount of "physical" distance is relevant for the "effect". Lots of luck detecting communication using this t
  • I just happen to have a serious and concrete suggestion. [] The referenced research paper includes experiments in which significant yet subtle changes in large time series data, such as a full night of EKG recording, can be identified two orders of magnitude faster than previous methods. The approach is relatively simple (the paper isn't heavy on math), and should scale very nicely to a parallel processing attack on the SETI signal detection problem.
  • EVERY broadcast signal that starts on this planet, or the Moon, or in orbit radiates in ALL directions. We have little control over their directions, so we've been broadcasting into space for nearly a century. Plus, I think the Skrull, from a Fantastic Four comic a few decades ago said it best, when one of the Skrull told Reed Richards "If you knew what was out there in the universe, you would be HIDING, not trying to contact them..."
  • Well, whether I want to lend my algorithmic genius to this or not depends.

    Lemme ask you, do you plan on keeping discoveries secret, reporting them to the White House first, until such time as the President can decide what to do?

You are in the hall of the mountain king.