Farewell SETI@Home

It was about 21 years ago that Berkley started one of the first projects that would allow you to donate idle computing time to scientific research. In particular, your computer could help crunch data from radio telescopes looking for extraterrestrial life. Want to help? You may be too late. The project is going into hibernation while they focus on analyzing data already processed.

According to the home page:

We’re doing this for two reasons:

1) Scientifically, we’re at the point of diminishing returns; basically, we’ve analyzed all the data we need for now.

2) It’s a lot of work for us to manage the distributed processing of data. We need to focus on completing the back-end analysis of the results we already have, and writing this up in a scientific journal paper.

So what do you think? Maybe they found ET and just don’t want to announce it too soon. Or maybe the cost of GPU-based supercomputers is now so low that it really doesn’t make sense to send jobs all over the Internet. Maybe everyone who used to donate is mining Bitcoin now? Or maybe they just really analyzed all their data. But what fun is that?

On the other hand, there are still other projects around that do distributed processing, most of them built on the Berkley framework BOINC. Folding@Home just started up a coronavirus program, for instance. If you’d rather do something more personal as a citizen scientist, you can join the zoo.

59 thoughts on “Farewell SETI@Home

  1. They “analyzed all their data” a long time ago, it’s been repeating the same data afaik for awhile (it may well of had extra data added, but this definitely happened for awhile). Possibly with ‘more’ intensive checks, but it’s the same data all along.

  2. Funding dried up.

    Projects like these are like daytime soap operas – they’ll continue for as long as there’s viewers. If that means you have to wake the actors up from “coma” for the fifth time, so be it.

  3. SETI@home was the leader, but there are other cycle-sharing programs out there, some of which do good work. WorldCommunityGrid is still funded (operated by IBM) and has handled projects that have actually published and have actually provided useful results.

  4. if you believe the Drake equation, then the galaxy should be fairly teeming with intelligent life. We would be bombarded with adverts from them hoping to sell their wares to gullible rubes. We wouldn’t need to sift through noise to find messages.

    OTOH, the Fermi paradox suggests either:

    1) Interstellar travel or comms is so hard it is not practically possible. Each advanced civ is essentially confined to it’s solar system or local group.

    2) Advanced civs burn out before reaching the really high tech stage where they can fully determine their fate. There are a million ways to die in the Western spiral arm.

    3) We are the first. You know that civ that expands outwards and colonizes the galaxy? That’s us.

    Either way, it’s pretty profound. Let’s hope it is 3).

    1. “if you believe the Drake equation, then…”

      Wait, let me stop you right there. The Drake equation has a lot of variables, many of which are still unknown. There’s no valid way to complete that thought because we can’t determine anything from the Drake equation yet. Well, nothing except perhaps identifying which unknowns we should be concentrating on.

    2. It can be all of them. Travel and communications might be hard AND most civilizations die AND we’re among the first to reach the capability of even listening to anyone. If there’s anyone besides us, they’ll be thousands or millions of light-years away anyhow and it will take equally long before we notice each other.

    3. None of these seem to be directly referring to the scale problem:

      The distance between civilizations happens to be so large that, given the speed of light, the time it takes from a signal to get from one civ to another is much much longer than the average lifespan of a civilization. So the probability of catching a signal from the civilization that lived exactly “distance * speed of light” years ago is super low.

      Sort of like stars in colliding galaxies – there are a lot of stars, but they will almost never bump into one another.

    4. Well there is another alternative, aliens are hear, but what do we have for them that is of value? Minerals? Nah! Water? Nope. Energy? Yea, right! The only thing we would have of value to aliens would be ourselves, our culture, the observation of a primitive yet technological world culture, that would be the only thing of value we have to offer, and how would be the easiest way to screw up the only really valuable thing in our solar system? Contact with aliens! There here but they’re not talking to us cause they don’t want to ruin our value.

    5. This is a naive interpretation of a naive equation and a naive paradox. We have never broadcast any omnidirectional radio signals that would be detectable over the noise floor at the range of our nearest stellar neighbor. Ever. The idea that “I Love Lucy” is out there flying through space light-years away, just waiting for an antenna to pick it up? Myth. It’s lost in the cacophony of unintelligible stellar radio now, deep, deep below the noise. Undetectable without an incredibly powerful and correctly aimed (and timed!) directional antenna. Even then, it would be very unlikely and require some serious hardware and astronomical luck. The kind of amplitude needed for SERIOUS interstellar communication is an insane (and likely even destructive) waste of power. And increasing technological advancement would probably lower their transmitting power, not raise it. Why do we expect them to do what we won’t? And of course we could do directional signals, but those still require a lot of power. And we did the Arecibo message. Was that really a serious attempt at contact? One message for a few minutes aimed at one tiny spot in the sky? Once again, why do we expect them to try harder than us? Saying the Fermi paradox is real is like wandering out into the middle of Antarctica, whispering “hello” under your breath once, then five seconds later concluding that there is apparently no communicative life on Earth and that this is a profound quandary. It’s layman science. It’s pop. Space is just big. We haven’t tried hard enough to say that the universe is empty or full yet. It’s just too big.

        1. capitalism doesn’t work on a galactic scale.

          once you get past the geographical and technological limitations of planetary scale society. capitalism has either killed the planet or falls away as the driving force behind it stop working. thats not even getting into the time scales were talking about which are a problem themselves.

          any alien race that advanced wouldn’t need anything form us and would likely be able to tell if we would succeed or fail a great filter. why bother “selling” something to a dying race away way

    1. You know I have often had a few thoughts on this:
      1) Would we know a signal if we heard it? We assume ET uses RF or at least thinks about it enough to know we do.
      2) Does time dilation impact the modulating signal if two bodies are at relativistic speeds between each other?
      3) Even now most of our communications are digital. And if you were near perfectly compressed, the signal would be hard to tell from background noise. So you have a very short window where you can hear their version of Fibber McGee and I Love Lucy and then you get increasingly hard to find noise.

      1. That’s what these kind of projects are for. Any coherent data signal is going to have patterns the reappear in the signal as a result of requiring a system usable for all of the operating parties. They may not be the patterns we use for our signals but they would stand out even to a naive pattern recognition algorithm. Time dilation is accounted for based on known factors, may very well be factors we don’t know but our current understanding of astrophysics is good enough to watch events clear across the universe and make meaningful conclusions that stand up to scrutiny. Data coherence, especially over long distance is sadly a problem that may blind us from potential neighbors, we can narrow down our search based on predictions of what frequencies will be able to carry coherent data at what distance and in what level of complexity but it’s a brutal fact of nature that will get in the way.

        1. On the other hand, efficient communications are indistinguishable from noise because it has only enough power to reach the intended receiver, and it’s compressed to the maximum.

    1. To detect our analog TV signals from Pluto, you’d need something on the order of the Arecibo dish, aimed perfectly at Earth.

      To detect that same signal from a few light years away is practically impossible.

      The chance that there’s intelligent alien life close enough to pick up these signals is pretty much zero. The same logic works in reverse. Unless someone sends a powerful beacon in our direction, just at the right time when we aim a receiver at that point, we have no hope of picking up anything intelligent.

      Modern OFDM transmissions look like wide spectrum noise, and are even harder to pick up, if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.

      1. Detect or demodulate.

        Granted to validate RW’s Lucy joke they need to be able to demodulate but even mere detection of an alien signal would be very significant. My understanding was that the distances you just described were about right for describing demodulation, not mere detection.

      2. “To detect that same signal from a few light years away is practically impossible.”

        A space-based Very Very Very Large Array spanning a few AU’s would probably have a pretty decent chance of picking something up.

        1. If it’s big enough, it’s possible, but the likelihood of someone building something that huge, at just the right time, and pointing in the right direction, is pretty small.

          1. Why does it have to be pointing in the right direction, just build a phased array of omni-directional antennas in multiple orbits around a star in all three directions. And then do the crazy maths to cancel out all the Doppler shifts, and adjust the phase to change the direction of the Orbitenna.

      3. The 70m DSN dish at Canberra in Australia is currently listening to Voyager 2. It is now 18.5 Billona Kilometers away which is a light-speed flight time of 17.16 hours. The transmitter at the other end is 20 watts! The BBC transmitter at Crystal Palace in South London puts out 2 Megawatts! You should maybe study up on RF transmission before making dumb statements.

        BTW https://eyes.nasa.gov/dsn/dsn.html

        1. The integration time makes the signal audible. When you send data slowly enough, you can tease the signal out of the noise by knowing what you’re looking for – this way it’s possible to send a signal around the globe with 1 mW of power. Only problem is, your data rate is so slow that sending a simple call sign takes a whole day.

          For listening to signals that weren’t meant to be heard by you, the data rate would be faster than you can decipher at the distance, and the signal would be too weak to notice from the noise. You simply wouldn’t know it’s there and you couldn’t listen in anyhow.

        2. Voyager has a 3.7 meter parabolic antenna pointing at Earth, and it’s only transmitting at 160 bits per second. That makes a big difference compare to a terrestrial analog TV station. Sure, the TV station has a few megawatts, but the antenna is omnidirectional along Earth’s surface, scattering that energy everywhere

          With such a directional antenna, you can reach further, but at a smaller angle, so the total volume of space that you can reach remains the same.

        3. First, Voyager isn’t very far out, at least in terms of distance between stars.

          But, it’s known. That means the antenna gets aimed deliberately, no random sweeping of the sky. And the modulation scheme is known, it may be weak but no fussing over whether it’s an “intelligent” signal or not.

          For signals from another planet, t’s way weaker, and a lot more variables come into play.

        4. You’ve made a very interesting point sid1950. I’m no Astrophysicist by any means but I do understand RF in respect to Communication. So I’m pretty simple on this subject but enjoy reading the comments. What Frequency is Voyager 2 transmitting? Amazingly enough, I’ve been hearing about light speed and I’m aware that light is a frequency in the spectrum beyond RF, or is it classified as RF? Visible light as I recall is 330 nm to 770 nm. Therefore in light years, the light has created a signal from past time for us humans to see. So I’m missing the point on the discussion here because I understand lower frequencies can be absorbed through certain elements in space or noise. But light, as a frequency travels on depending on the energy. Would you agree? Please advise…

  5. I’ve been participating since the beginning. I first installed the old Seti@Home client on my college dorm room PC. Has it really been 21 years! OMG reading this makes me feel so old.

    I see the news hasn’t reached my Boinc client yet. It’s still chugging along on a SETI task. (it’s last perhaps?) No worries, I have 5 other worthy projects running too which will take up the CPU share. So long as they leave the SETI client available on Boinc I’ll keep the lights on here. Maybe when they get through what they are doing or find some money or whatever they will be sending jobs again.

  6. Analyzed all the data they need for now? SETI just announced an initiative to partner with the NRAO VLA in New Mexico so they can gather even more data with the COSMIC system. Sounds like the hibernation may be temporary.

  7. I used to run this on my computer at work. It was a cool screensaver. I think what they’re doing is finally admitting that the entire concept and therefore the entire project was flawed.

    Because I’m an adult human I dismiss both the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox.

  8. I had heard this was coming. Back in the day I helped a friend set-up an Internet Cafe, and we had this running on all the computers as the screensaver. At it’s peak there were more than 20. She had a group of gamers book the place overnight to run LAN parties which I would occasionally host, and during breaks for pizza and beer they would sit and watch it running!

  9. Setiathome died many years ago when they switched over to Boinc. They’ve been repeating the same data and they made it into more of seti-thats-a-pain-to-deal-with instead of setiathome.

    I had my mom, older brothers, and even nephews running setiathome because it was exciting to be a part of. Their website integrations, little certificates, nifty graphics, all that ‘gamification’ made it exciting for people. My mom still would like to find setiathome to get the graphics, but they are no more just a boring text client.

    Its not like the MAIN claim of setiathome was the pure science. The compute power was nice, but they could have kept it to spare commercial machines instead of public computing. The main claim was getting the science on people’s computers in a way that excited them AND doing useful work. Once they gave that up there was no point.

  10. What the scientist’s just don’t get is there is a time “window’ that any “signal” would be detected. The time, sorry SETI, there is not a window, till y’all make a permanent functioning RF/solar powered / transmitter ,,. working on on it, its pyrymid based powered

  11. If we really want to utilize a signal that we think someone would be looking at, we could modulate our sun’s light using a large transparent disk. Think of a false transiting planet that suddenly disappears then reappears. (a Morse Code of sorts) Or maybe even a large mirror that reflects light towards another star system. Unnatural signals like that would certainly get the attention of a curious species of Aliens. (Just like Tabby’s Star did for us)

  12. Finally we can use all that electricity and the associated emissions for something more likely to return a meaningful result, like simulating protein folding to understand diseases.

  13. Read Cixin Liu’s trilogy “The Three-Body Problem”/”The Dark Forest”/”Death’s End” to find out why we should not try to contact our stellar neighbours…..

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