There are thousands maybe even millions of computers connected to the Internet but most of those are disconnected from each other. While essential for security and privacy, the collective power of these computers working in concert sounds like an underutilized resource. That was the thinking that gave birth to the SETI@home project in 1999 and after two decades of sifting through signals from space, the program is ending. The search for intelligent life out there, however, continues.
The original idea was actually spawned back in the 50s when the idea of a distributed supercomputer was nothing short of radical. Even today, the prospect of donating your computer’s idle time to process data still sounds out of this world, which is why everyone involved with the SETI@home project was blown away by how it took off almost instantly.
That popularity, however, is also to blame for the project’s decision to shut down the “@home” part of the endeavor. For 20 years, thousands of personal computers around the world would analyze signals coming from outer space and filter out noise that has become the byproduct of satellites and terrestrial radio waves. Even then, the amount of data they generated numbered millions, making it impossible for mere humans to catch up in analyzing that data.
That’s what SETI will use the downtime for, allowing its extremely small number of researchers to go through almost 20 years’ worth of data to see if they missed out any interesting signals. They will also pass the data set through additional filters to weed out other noise.
SETI itself continues to operate even without the public-facing part and the latter might not even be out of commission for long. Once the team has finally caught up with the data, they may reopen SETI@home’s doors to the public again, continuing humanity’s combined efforts to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.