by December 5, 2002 0 comments

It is not for nothing that Steven Spielberg’s movie ET became one of the biggest blockbusters of all times. The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence has been occupying us for many centuries now. ET gave a twist to the tale, featuring an alien botanist who gets held back from a team exploring Earth. ET teams up with Elliot, a child, to build a powerful transmitter out of toys and the like, to send a message back home asking to be saved.

In real life, we do not yet know of aliens transmitting messages from Earth. But we do have powerful receivers listening in to the vastness of outer space, listening for any signals of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Super intelligence

The quest for artificial intelligence has been on for a long time now. And many believe that this artificial intelligence will have some sort of computing as its core. In fact, all current attempts at arriving at artificial intelligence is focussed around building intelligent computing systems.
After artificial intelligence comes super intelligence. Can humans create an entity that’s more intelligent than us? Many argue that the current state of technological progress will lead to a state of super intelligence fairly soon enough, within the next thirty years or so. The most common scenarios painted are of super-intelligent computers or computer networks being built, that will overtake human beings in intelligence. In such situations, either the computers themselves would be super intelligent, or the man-machine interface could become so intimate that the users of such computer systems could become super intelligent.
What will happen once this is achieved? There are two diverse views here. One holds that the rate of progress will be accelerated beyond all known norms. The other view holds that the human race as we knew it would cease to exist. In either case, this achievement of super intelligence marks a point of discontinuity in the growth of technology, and possibly in the evolution of mankind. This point of discontinuity is called the singularity. There has been much discussion on whether and when the singularity will occur, and what will happen after it. Much of it is in the realm of philosophy, and you can see it by using any search engine.

It is only with powerful computing systems that we are able to sort through the vast amounts of data collected by these radio telescopes. Even the most powerful of supercomputers would not be enough to process all the data available. It is in this context that the SETI@Home (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project was conceived. The project has been covered in detail in our story, Build Your own Supercomputer (PCQuest May 2002). Briefly, the data is split into small bits and sent out to millions of clients over the Internet. These clients process the data using a screensaver, and send the processed data back to the servers. This way, the servers can be kept small, even while the data-processing capability available exceeds that of the most powerful supercomputers on Earth.

This model of distributed computing, using free cycles of idling computers, is now being tried out for computer-intensive activities ranging from drug discovery to back-office data processing.

Meanwhile, the search for ET goes on.…

Krishna Kumar

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