Assisting scientists in their search for extraterrestrial life? There’s an app for that.
On Monday, physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced a $100 million search effort aimed at discovering alien life. The project, known as Breakthrough Listen, is said to be "in the best position yet to make advances in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence."
The 10-year effort will use two of the world’s most advanced telescopes: the 100 meter (328 foot) Green Bank telescope in West Virginia, and the 64 meter (209 foot) Parkes telescope in New South Wales, Australia.
These telescopes will scan five times more of the radio spectrum, enabling scientists to listen for signals coming from millions of stars near Earth, one hundred times more quickly than has ever been done before. In past search efforts, only around 36 hours were taken per year from the radio telescopes; Breakthrough Listen will record thousands of hours of data.
"I'm proud of the stuff we've been doing," said Dan Werthimer, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the new project's steering group, in a Monitor interview. But "this is huge."
This process requires an immense amount of computing power to run, and scientists are counting on some of that number-crunching power coming from an unexpected source: your smartphone.
The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) app, which is available for Android phones and computers, is a collaborative processing platform that has been used in a number of astrophysics, medical, and mathematical endeavors. In other words, BOINC allows scientists to tap into the spare processing power of personal devices all over the world to power their research.
The app is free, and don't worry about wasting data – it only runs on Wi-Fi.
“In searches such as this, the more eyes you can get on the prize the better,” CompTIA president Todd Thibodeaux told Forbes. “Harnessing the personal interests of possibly hundreds of thousands of people makes sense and couldn’t be accomplished cost effectively any other way.”
Garnering the attention and interest of the public is key for projects that require crowd sourced processing, says IDC research director Alys Woodward. When the public is on board, the potential for research skyrockets.
“Imagine if modern pharmaceuticals had been started the same way, with crowd sourced power and effort, instead of being driven by commercial interests,” Ms. Woodward said. “When there is a major human interest such as in these cases, the number of people who can help is immense.”