11/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

By now, the variety and scope of the TED Prize wishes we are helping bring to reality is well-known. But Jill Tarter's 2009 wish -- "to empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company" -- expands that scope out into the vastness of the universe itself.

Tarter is Director of the SETI Institute's Center for SETI Research (SETI stands for Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) and has spent most of her life looking for signs of sentient life outside the Earth. Her plan for the TED Prize is an ambitious one -- to come up with a system that would enable engineers, and anyone interested in life elsewhere, to participate in the quest for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

To accomplish this, the technology at SETI, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach, has to be upgraded and then a system to collect the information has to be created. And that means coming up with the largest science project ever where millions of people around the globe take part in the search. That will also take a great storytelling and awareness campaign to inspire those millions of Earthlings to participate.

Tarter recently came back from a summer visit to Australia where she went to see the Parkes radio telescope, the one that brought us those first, grainy images of the moon landing 40 years ago this July 20. I asked Tarter for an update on her and OpenSETI's recent activities. I'll let her explain in her own words:

"I . . . spent 4 days in Sydney, lecturing to the Harry Messel International Science School (probably the brightest group of high school students on our planet), and updating the media on the Allen Telescope Array [the ATA, a massive new instrument that will eventually have 350 antennas, each 6 meters in diameter]. At the Sydney Ideas Lecture, I talked about extremophiles and exoplanets on the anniversary of the lunar landing.

"My media and lecture audiences Down Under didn't know a lot about TED, and it was an enjoyable challenge to explain who TEDsters are and that they are actually trying to help fulfill my personal wish to change the world -- there's nothing to compare with such a group in Oz or anywhere in the world! In contrast, one person who is very aware of TED and its activities is Kia Silverbrook who runs Silverbrook Research in the Sydney district of Balmain.

"Kia's group is about to market a revolutionary new ink jet printer and he's got lots of clever physicists and engineers working at his labs. My husband, Jack Welch, and I gave Kia's employees a talk about the ATA, the radio science and the SETI search programs it will accomplish, and Jack's efforts to extend the ATA feed and receiver to higher frequencies. To do that last trick means reliably and inexpensively manufacturing bits and pieces at much smaller scales than we do presently. Sliverbrook Research does miniaturization really well, and several of the staff seem interested to help with our challenges.

"My TED wish is beginning to take on a more concrete status. Infosys Technologies in Bangalore is helping us clean up our signal detection software, so that we can publish it as open source code. GitHub is hosting our open source development efforts and providing required repositories."

In addition to GitHub's hosting, Tarter says other companies and people are offering essential help as the mechanics of the search are set up. InfoSys has completed a software services agreement with the SETI Institute to provide software engineering time and talent at no charge, in order to clean up the current version of the SonATA (SETI on the ATA) code. That will create a robust, easy-to-build system for Open Source. InfoSys will also perform unit testing and create documentation for the cleaned code.

In July, Bintu Vasudevan, from InfoSys, visited the SETI Institute for two weeks of observation. He and his colleagues have set up a testing system, created a git repository and successfully installed the SonATA code. They have begun testing the code, with an expected completion date in mid-October.

SETI also recently conducted a workshop involving experts from gaming, social networking and citizen-scientist communities. The group explored the nature, scope and technical challenges of engaging a global group of volunteers eager to scan visualizations of data coming from the Allen Telescope Array. These volunteers would also detect and vet complex signal patterns in noise and return the results to the observatory in time to influence the next observation.

Finally, Tarter and SETI hope to name a project manager for OpenSETI soon. As Tarter says, "There are a whole lot of challenges, but something enjoyable, rewarding, and incredibly useful may come out of this work."