E.T., Why Don't You Just Call?

PHOTO Allen Telescope Array

An innovative new radio telescope has given new life to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, leading one of the leaders of the search to make a bold prediction.

"We'll find ET within two dozen years," Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, proclaimed in a speech at the California Institute of Technology. Shostak went on to say that he not only has a pretty good hunch about how long it could take, he thinks he knows what ET will be like.

But don't expect him to look like us.

"I think that if there's a conscious intelligence out there, it's synthetic," Shostak added. He's talking robots, folks. The argument goes like this: Darwinian evolution is a very slow process, and although it probably has occurred on many planets, it has it's limitations -- like us. Technological evolution, by contrast, can advance at warp speed, as we've all seen in the computers that are out of date by the time we get them out of the box.

Thus, any biological life, like us, will eventually lose out to the machines we create, and synthetic intelligence will take over where we leave off. The real challenge, of course, will be to keep the robots under control but still let them do our thinking for us, a neat trick if we can pull it off.

It's probably going to happen, Shostak said, because technological evolution "just blows Darwin away." So, ET not only should be out there someplace, he should be one really smart machine.

Now, predictions about how long it will take to find ET are not rare, since that's probably the most common question put to scientists at the SETI Institute, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. The institute has been the largest player in the search since NASA abandoned a formal program several years ago. The space agency has continued searching for other Earth-like planets, including the launching of the Kepler telescope last March, but it has shied away from looking directly for ET.

What makes the search different now is the creation of the Allen Telescope Array in a dusty valley 290 miles northeast of San Francisco that will, for the first time, look for ET 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Only 42 of the planned 350 radio dishes that will make up the array have been completed, but that's enough for scientists to begin combing the heavens for many secrets, including the hiding place of ET.

The array is a joint project by the University of California, Berkeley, and the SETI Institute. The primary financial support has come from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, who put up $25 million in seed money in 2001.

The array is the first panchromatic, wide-angle, snapshot radio camera ever built, according to scientists at Berkeley. The design is based on the idea that it's cheaper to build a lot of small radio antennas that act as one than it is to build huge dishes.

As part owner of the new array, SETI finally has its own toolbox and scientists will no longer be forced to use "other people's telescopes, which is like doing cancer research with borrowed microscopes," Shostak said.

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