The search for extraterrestrials is on

The search for extraterrestrials is on. And it's not a Texas-sized mainframe leading the chase, but more than two million PCs and a willing host of amateur alien hunters

What would you think was the biggest computing project in the world? Something to do with simulating nuclear blasts, perhaps, or forecasting climate change, using some vast system that occupies acres of floor space?

What would you think was the biggest computing project in the world? Something to do with simulating nuclear blasts, perhaps, or forecasting climate change, using some vast system that occupies acres of floor space?

Not at all. It's the search for aliens - more precisely, any radio signals they might be beaming out. And it's being carried out not on some monstrous system, but by about 2.3 million personal computers scattered around the world, as part of a project begun by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) group. It's called "Seti@home", and consists of a small computer program which runs as a screensaver - that is, when you aren't using your computer - and chugs through the complex data analysis of radio signals received from outer space, looking for a steady signal that doesn't come from Earth and which lies in a particular range of frequencies that aliens would be likely to use - at least, according to our best guesses about what they might do.

Now, PCs - even 2.3 million of them - might not sound as though they could possibly stack up against the huge machines such as Asci White, the computer unveiled by IBM in July which covers an area equal to three tennis courts and can carry out 12 trillion calculations per second - more than three times faster than the recorded speed of any other computer, and 1,000 times more powerful than Deep Blue, the supercomputer that defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

But Asci White is only one machine (which will be used to simulate nuclear blasts mathematically). The statistics for the "Seti@home" project show that earlier this month its members' computers carried out 14.26 trillion operations per second - and that since the project launched in May 1999, its users have done a grand total of 3.7 hundred million trillion (3.7 20) operations. To reach that, Asci White would have to run non-stop for about nine months - but by that time, the Seti@home project would have outrun it even further, as the massed computers now have more computing power in total than the IBM behemoth. The statistics show that as more people join, they are also bringing more powerful computers to bear, so that in the course of the project's life the average time taken to process a chunk of data has fallen from 18hr 35min to 14hr 46min, for those using it in the past day.

The Seti project was probably the fastest-growing Net phenomenon (at least, until the music file-sharing program Napster came along). Released last year on 16 May, within 10 days Seti@home had 350,000 users in 203 countries; in just one day it added another 20,000. It passed the one million mark in September 1999, and two million this summer.

What also makes the Seti@home project remarkable - besides its size - is the fact that all the processing is being done completely voluntarily. Certainly, Seti itself could never pay for something comparable with Asci White. But by tapping into our fascination with the search for alien intelligence, and offering a simple solution, it has got people to hand over processing time that would otherwise go to waste.

The Seti package is a small download (taking about five minutes over a normal phone line) which installs itself. It then begins analysing a small packet of data - recorded originally by the Arecibo radio telescope - and once it has checked it for any constant signal suggesting alien intelligence, it passes the results back online to Berkeley. Various precautions are taken to make sure that users cannot fiddle the results; any data analysis which suggests alien contact, would be redone independently. But if your machine finds extraterrestrial life then you will get the credit, Seti insists.

Now, other organisations are hoping to tap into this powerful market for "distributed computing" to solve other complex problems which work better when broken into small pieces - such as unravelling the structure of proteins, finding potential drug candidates, and even predicting climate change. What might be even nicer, if your computer is usually just turned off at night, is that you could have the option of being the first person on the planet to spot a signal coming from an alien civilisation - or you might earn a few pounds letting those spare processor cycles solve problems for commercial companies.

David Anderson, formerly a computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley who organised the Seti@home project, now works as chief technology officer for United Devices, a commercial spin-off. Based in Austin, Texas, it is now recruiting commercial companies interested in using idle computer time available over the internet.

Seti@home was not the first project to use distributed computing over the internet: that was almost certainly (, formed in 1997 to crack encryption keys to coded messages. Such messages are encoded by multiplying together two very large prime numbers. With the message authors' agreement, would issue volunteers around the Net with a version of the message and a computer program for their PC telling it what range of prime numbers to try. Of course, mathematicians have for years been setting their PCs to work trying to find record prime numbers, and using the internet to communicate their results, but that has not been a centrally-coordinated project with distributed effort.

Other distributed projects now underway are seeking out Fermat numbers (of the form 1+2 2n; the question is, are there any primes beyond n=4?) and optimal Golumb rulers, which are sets of non-negative integers where no two distinct pairs of numbers in the set have the same difference. (A five-mark Golumb ruler is 0,1, 4, 9, 11; finding them becomes exponentially harder for sets of 24 or more, but there are applications in X-ray crystallography, radio astronomy and coding theory.)

And certainly if you can find the right project, internet users will happily lend a hand. In autumn last year, Myles Allen of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire had the idea of using distributed computing to try to solve climate simulation. He posted a message on the Net noting that the work would try to introduce "fuzzy prediction" to reflect the variation of risks and probabilities in the forecast, rather than just one "best guess".

"We don't have the computing resources to do this any other way. So, if you're lucky enough to have a powerful PC on your desk or at home, we're asking you to do your bit so the right decisions get taken on climate change," he asked. The "Casino-21" project site got 15,000 replies in two weeks.

But it is the commercial side which is booming now. Parabon Computation, a 45-person company in Fairfax, Virginia, aims soon to start farming out screensaver work in biotechnology, financial and pharmacology research; people who sign up will get a payment for their machine's time per unit of work done. You won't be a millionaire, but Parabon says it might be worth a few pounds a month.

Another company, Applied MetaComputing, has government customers such as Nasa and the US Defense Department. And another company, TurboLinux, sells a product which can distribute work within a company for its idle computers. Among the customers for that are Procter & Gamble, which uses it for computeraided design, and Motorola which uses it for chip design.

So the demand is certainly out there. The problem would-be distributed processing companies face though is that they have first to persuade their potential clients that their data will be safe out on the Net: "People with serious computations are not likely to trust results coming from unreliable machines owned by total strangers," said Bob Metcalfe, formerly of Xerox Parc, and the man credited with inventing the Ethernet networking system.

But Parabon thinks it has got around that problem, by offering software much like the Seti@home product. It hopes to launch a project soon for the University of Maryland to analyse protein folding, an essential step between genes and biochemistry. It is also working with the US National Cancer Institute's molecular pharmacology lab on a project to simulate how cancer cells react to different drugs. At the same time is working with the UK's Sanger Centre near Cambridge on mapping the human genome: its community of 60,000 participants, with 200,000 computers, are equivalent to more than 180,000 Pentium II 266-MHz computers working flat out around the clock.

Who knows? It may be that important future discoveries won't be made on huge machines like Asci White, but on one close to you - perhaps the one on your desk. As Richard Crandall, a scientist at Apple Computer, comments: "Machines have no business sleeping."

But for now, the project to beat them all is still Seti@home. "It's the world's largest supercomputer," said Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at Seti@home and director of the Berkeley Seti program. "It's made our search 10 times more sensitive, so we can find weak signals and pulse signals, things we couldn't look for because we didn't have enough computing power."

Seti@home: The Ral Climate page: Parabon Computing:

newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Mentor for people who have offended

This is an unpaid volunteer role. : Belong: We are looking for volunteers who ...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher - French

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Modern Foreign Language Teach...

RE/Humanities, Sittingbourne School

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: We urgently seek an experienced ...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Southampton: Randstad Education are recruiting ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?