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SETI taps smartphones in hunt for E.T.

Are we are alone in the universe or is there intelligent life beyond the Earth? Getty Images

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Move over, Twitter. Drop dead, Angry Birds. There's a new mobile app that does more than let people play around on their smartphones--it allows them to join the quest for signs of intelligent life in the universe.

The SETI Institute is launching a private beta test beginning today of SetiQuest Explorer in the hopes that hobby astronomers will help with tasks that can't be done well by computers. The app runs on Android 2.2 but will be available on the iPhone this summer. There is also a desktop version for any computer running Flash Player 10.2.

"We want to tap into the brain power of the world," Jill Tarter, director of the non-profit SETI Institute, said in an interview in her office this week.

The SETI@Home project run by the University of California at Berkeley harnesses unused computer processing power to help crunch the data coming from outer space. SetiQuest Explorer is modeled on the same idea, but using humans and crowdsourcing to distribute visual recognition duties to people with spare time on their hands. (A similar project is Galaxy Zoo, which lets people classify galaxies by shape on a Web site.)

While computers are good at automated tasks and recognizing defined patterns, they aren't so good at detecting and identifying undefined patterns.

SetiQuest Explorer volunteers will be looking for patterns in the fuzzy noise from radio signals picked up by the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California. The telescopes are trained on stars beyond the Solar System, including stars with planets nearby that NASA's Kepler mission has determined are in a habitable zone, meaning they could sustain life.

A line, pulse, or squiggle in the static displayed as black and white dots is compared to seven predetermined types of recognizable patterns. A match could indicate a signal from a CB radio, satellite, airplane, or other known source, and thus be dismissed as interference or unimportant. But a pattern that is not familiar could indicate an interstellar communication meriting closer scrutiny. So far, none of those have been found.

"We are looking for anomalies, patterns that aren't recognizable," said Tarter. "We know there are data we are missing. There are so many signals in the narrowband (radio frequency), our automated code has to skip over it."

The challenge is to weed out all the noise to be able to better detect a foreign signal when you don't know exactly what that signal will look like.

"We want people to help us find things we don't expect," she said. "A computer doesn't do random pattern matching. A computer is not very good at serendipitous detection, and humans are."

Citizen Scientists

In her TED talk two years ago, Tarter talked about enlisting the help of volunteers--she calls them "citizen scientists"--for various aspects of the project, including the arduous and time consuming task of poring over the tons of data satellites gather from outer space.

"All of the concerted SETI efforts over the last 40 some years are equivalent to scooping a single glass of water from the oceans. And no one would decide that the ocean was without fish on the basis of one glass of water," she said at the TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference.

Nearly two years later, a San Francisco-based programmer heard her words and took the call to arms seriously.

"I saw Jill's TED talk and I was motivated to do something to help," Potter said, adding that Tarter is a friend of a friend of his. "I wanted to help with one of the most important philosophical, scientific, and spiritual questions of our time."

Potter was a Carl Sagan fan as a child, volunteered at a planetarium on weekends in high school, and was a member of the astronomy club at Carnegie Mellon University--just the type of astronomy buff and inquisitive mind Tarter was hoping to reach.

Potter originally considered creating a program for people to use on their TVs but dropped that idea in favor of focusing on the fast growing handheld market. A mobile SETI app is "just the kind of thing to do when you have a few minutes to kill when you are waiting in line at a movie or at the doctor's office," he said. "It's something to fill time, like Twitter."

Potter contacted Tarter, who was thrilled about the idea. For funding, he turned to Adobe's Experience Design Group, which takes an interest in projects using Adobe technology. SetiQuest Explorer was built using Adobe AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime), which allows developers to use the same code base to create apps for multiple devices and platforms, Potter said.

Asked why Adobe got involved, Michael Gough, head of the Experience Design Group there, said: "Adobe loves a good challenge, especially one that can be supported by our technology. We like to reserve a little time and energy for projects that our designers and developers feel passionate about, and when this came up, it caught a few people's imagination."

Programming began in earnest in January and to speed things up, Potter organized several coding weekends where teams of three to five programmers holed up in a hotel meeting room for two days and nights writing software. They wrote the mobile app that displays the data to end users, as well as the back end system that feeds the data from the SETI servers to the mobile devices, assigns data to users, and keeps track of the recordings of patterns. All the software is open source.

Francis Potter, founder and chief executive of The Hathersage Group, shows off the setiQuest Explorer mobile app he developed. Blake Barrett, application architect at the firm, (at right) helped him on the project.
Francis Potter, founder and chief executive of The Hathersage Group, shows off the SetiQuest Explorer mobile app he developed. Blake Barrett, application architect at the firm, (at right) helped him on the project. James Martin/CNET

Once a user has logged in to SetiQuest Explorer via Facebook (so people don't have to remember yet another password), the app doles out assignments. A tiny slice of the universe is displayed in Google Sky with a target in view. You can pan around in space and zoom in. There is information provided about the target, such as the name of the star, its distance from Earth, its coordinates, and how many planets it has. This display puts a name and neighborhood to the target.

Touching "Continue" brings up a display of the radio signals, represented as black and white dots, where users will attempt to identify patterns. Scrolling with the scroll bar or making a wiping motion pushes the image, so users can scroll through the frequencies as if they were turning the dial on an old-fashioned radio--the digital equivalent to searching for a channel among all the static in outer space. If a pattern is detected, users can touch "I see a pattern" and identify it from a list of seven examples. If the pattern is not among those, there is a "?" button to touch. Users can also "cancel" or get a new assignment.

Assignments will be sent to multiple participants, and if there is a consensus that one has a recognizable pattern that likely comes from a known or man-made source, then it will be set aside. If an assignment has a pattern that people designate as unrecognizable, it will be evaluated more closely by SETI staff.

The goal is to get enough people using SetiQuest Explorer that the data can be analyzed within four minutes from when it is transmitted from the telescopes. "We need to be able to follow up on a signal right when we see it," Tarter said.

SetiQuest Explorer is just one piece of the larger SetiQuest program, which encourages programmers to help improve on the group's search algorithms and create new applications. For example, instead of visualizing radio data as black and white dots, it could be represented in colorful 3D patterns. And game developers could come up with ways to make the tasks more fun and immersive.

Getting individuals involved is key to the project, not just to process data, but to get people emotionally and intellectually invested in the mission and lend a new perspective on the world around us, Tarter said.

"We see ourselves as very different and distinct," she said. "This (project) has the effect of holding up a mirror to the whole planet, and we don't see any national boundaries down there.... This can help trivialize the differences among humans and, hopefully, change the world a bit."

Scrolling through the display of radio static on the app is the digital equivalent to turning the knob on an old-fashioned radio.
Scrolling through the display of radio static on the app is the digital equivalent to turning the knob on an old-fashioned radio. James Martin/CNET

This article originally appeared on our sister site CNET

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