Got some spare time today? How about putting aside that game of Bejeweled Blitz and instead lend a hand in what could be the most important discovery of all time? It’s no joke — the people behind the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project have partnered with TED (Technology Entertainment Design) to create a website where anyone can log on and start searching for aliens.
Called SETI Live, the new project reduces the hunt for intelligent life on other planets to a kind of game — sort of a mix between Foursquare and Where’s Waldo. Once you log on and take a brief tutorial, the site flashes snapshots of radio-signal data. Then it’s your job to identify any suspicious patterns you may spot — a straight line among a sea of random streaks could be ET trying to say hello. Do it long enough and you’ll earn special badges.
The SETI program searches the heavens for extraterrestrials via radio telescopes, examining tiny slices of the sky, one at a time, for signals that might have been produced by a civilization elsewhere in the galaxy. This generates mountains of radio-signal data to sift through — too much for the SETI program to handle itself, especially since public funding has been virtually nonexistent for the past 20 years, and securing private investment has been a challenge as well.
You may have heard of SETI@Home — an app that anyone can download that will lend their PC’s processing power to SETI when it’s not being used. Whereas that program is passive, SETI Live is a way for enthusiasts to actively help in the search for the answer to the question, “Are we alone?” It also has the bonus of not requiring any software installation.
SETI Live was conceived as part of the TED Prize program, which gives $100,000 every year to reward a specific vision from the “world’s leading entrepreneurs, innovators and entertainers to change the world.” SETI leader Jill Tarter won the prize in 2009, wishing for a way “to empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” Zooniverse, which backs several citizen science projects, also helped build SETI Live.
In our brief hands-on, we found the tutorial to be a little vague at times, but thankfully short. We got the hang of spotting patterns pretty quickly, though, and blazed through several data screens in the hunt for aliens. It gets boring mighty fast, though — it would be served better if they could somehow mix up the data or activities, or even simply change the color of some of the screens. Be warned: it doesn’t appear to be compatible with Google Chrome (Firefox had no problems).
Still, it’s a promising project, and we’re sure there are thousands of astronomy enthusiasts who will line up to participate. What do you think of SETI Live? And how could it be improved? Have your say in the comments.
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