SETI @ Home

In last weeks edition of Click I promised that I’d review the numerous Linux products that were available on the market as alternatives to the popular Windows Operating System.Unfortunately however I have been unable to find the time to install any such programs on to my laptop and so this week I’m going to go off on a completely random tangent instead and discuss the SETI@home project which I was recently reminded of.

SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) has been conducted by many different scientific institutions interested in exploring the galaxy for signs of alien intelligence for many decades; NASA, for example have been conducting such research since 1959.Unfortunately the process of analysing a such a great deal of scientific data that is gathered by the various telescopes and satellite receivers for artificial intelligence is such a large undertaking that it requires huge amounts of resources to accomplish.For this reason, the computers many of the big institutions use only spend their time analysing on a very shallow level as they don’t have the resources to spend time looking at the weaker signals as to do so would require an tremendous computing capacity which would not be affordable.

A drastic alternative that a group of people from UC Berkley devised was that instead of using a handful of supercomputers it would instead be possible to link up a great number of the smaller computers that are already connected via the Internet to accomplish the same results.It’s the perfect solution; there are after all so many computers sat in offices just idling their time away for around 5 hours a day that instead they could be used to a more productive end.By taking the idle time of these machines combined you are then able to use them to analyse data for signs of intelligence, the results of which are then sent back to the SETI team.

The above process is achieved by using a special screen-saver on your computer that when running uses your existing connection to the Internet to download raw data from the SETI@home server to be processed.This program is available freely from http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu as a 750k file that takes only a couple of minutes to download on a standard 56k modem connection.Once installed it sits quietly in the background and whenever you leave your PC for a specified period of time it will start to retrieve and process the information required by the SETI team.Since you have to be connected to the Internet while this happens you will probably only want to use this software if you’re with a ISP (Internet Service Provider) that offers you 0800 dial up access.Installation on my laptop was relatively painless and my machine was soon off searching for and analysing possible candidates for the first proof of Extra Terrestrial life.

Even if the project is deemed not to be a success, the principles the SETI@home project uses to analyse the data are important for the future of distributed computing – as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, imagine all the computers in the country that are currently switched on but doing nothing at all.If you can now believe that they’ve all got high-speed Internet connections then you can possibly appreciate how it could be possible for other complex data to be analysed in much the same way in the near future.In total, over the past few years the team at SETI have been able to accumulate half a million years worth of CPU time so just think of the possibilities if the same amount of time could be put in to a worthy cause such as medical research for example.

Take a look at the site http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu and then even if you choose not to participate in the program you will perhaps understand the possible benefits this technology could offer us.

 

About the Author – Chris Holgate works for Refresh Cartridges who supply a wide range of printer cartridges at the UK’s lowest prices.

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