While extraterrestrials still haven’t crawled beyond the realm of sci-fi, SETI wants to change that in 20 years—or at least put every possible advancement in technology into trying.
SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has encountered endless false alarms while scouring the universe for artificial radio signals. This has only made senior astronomer Seth Shostak want to break out every computing upgrade that either exists or will soon exist to rev up the search for life. Shostak recently talked aliens with the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, discussing the state of SETI efforts to identify life beyond Earth. If 2037 is too early, he’s thinking 2040.
"I bet everyone a cup of coffee that we will find something," Shostak said with two sugars and a splash of optimism, though he backed that up just in case: "I may have to buy a lot of coffee."
The main initiative on Shostak’s radar is for SETI to keep relentlessly searching the universe for artificial radio signals that could be signs of intelligent life. Whether they would be trying to communicate with us, each other, or just trying to operate their own machinery would be the next mystery to emerge from space, but we aren’t there yet.
Finding signs of aliens will rely heavily on our own most supercharged technological advances. Shostak indicated that his planned experiment will need equipment powerful enough to survey around a million star systems for those sought-after radio waves. What is available now would take us thousands of years to investigate such a broad expanse of space, but upcoming improvements will avoid the possibility of both us and our equipment turning to fossils before finding anything (if we find anything).
While the fact that computer processors are ridiculously expensive is no alien concept under Moore’s Law, which predicts that every two years, the number of transistors on a circuit inevitably doubles. Processors will keep getting smaller and cheaper and faster at warp speed. SETI scientists are relying on this to develop software that can power-sift through radio antenna signals from multiple star systems. Meaning, they could be looking at hundreds and even thousands of stars at once.
Artificial intelligence could also be invaluable in searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. New types of machine learning are being developed by SETI scientists to pick up signals, which is now painfully limited because current equipment can only seek out one particular pattern in the radio data transmitted to it. Shostak believes that expanding the scope of computer brains will do wonders for the scope of signals that AI will be able to recognize.
Of course, Shostak couldn’t go without mentioning his interest in the TRAPPIST-1 system, three of whose seven planets are potentially habitable. He believes hypothetical forms of intelligent life which may have emerged on one planet that system could have colonized the others—but in the neverending search for aliens, even microbial life will be mind-blowing.
"[TRAPPIST-1] and other recent discoveries represent the beginning of an era of exoplanet exploration that, in the next five to 10 years, will allow us to identify truly habitable worlds and possibly life beyond Earth," said UC San Diego professor of physics Adam Burgasser, who was a member of the team that discovered the seven-planet star system. "These transformative advances, addressing one of humanity's most persistent questions — 'Are we alone?'— are fully achievable.”