[email protected], a specialised segment of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, SETI, is one of the most innovative and successful programs in the history of the search for ETI. The program, a volunteer computing program, was launched on 17th May 1999, just over a decade ago, to bring the power of increasing numbers of home computers and the connectivity afforded by improved internet facilities to bear on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, especially in the area of data analysis.
The [email protected] project is open to any individual worldwide with an active internet connection. The intending project participant downloads and installs the free software. Once installed, the program runs analysis on data which is received from the 2.5MHz wide band of the SERENDIP IV (the 4th upgrade of UC Berkeley's SETI program, Search for Extraterrestrial Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations) computer. Once analysis is complete, results are automatically reported to the SERENDIP project at Berkeley.
As stated earlier, the [email protected] project has been extremely successful. More than 5 million people have joined the program in over 200 countries planet wide, and, between them, these volunteers have provided some 20 billion or so computer processing hours towards the success of the SETI project.
The original software used for the [email protected] program was designed specifically for the program, but as one of the first distributed grid computing projects (grid computing is the application of several computers to a single problem, usually technical or scientific, at the same time; problems that require large numbers of processing cycles or access to large amounts of data) ever embarked upon, the software had a number of shortcomings, particularly in the area of security. In order to address these security problems, the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley, designed and developed BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing which was launched in 2002.
Two goals were envisaged by the creators of BOINC. First, it was intended to show the viability of a distributed grid computing system; and, second, it was intended that the system should handle the management of the [email protected] project. In both respects, the system has succeeded. BOINC is now the most widely used distributed grid client in the world, and the security problems that bedevilled [email protected] in its previous incarnation are now largely things of the past. Although no actual message from an extraterrestrial intelligence has yet been detected by [email protected], none has been detected by the wider SETI program as a whole. Nonetheless, the computational power that [email protected] has brought to bear on the SETI program, can only hasten the day. [email protected]'s average throughput is in the order of some 400 teraflops of data analysed, making it equivalent to the 2nd fastest super computer in the world; indeed, the throughput of all BOINC projects , some 1.5 petaflops of data, exceeds that of the fastest super computer in the world, the IBM Roadrunner.
The data that is processed by the [email protected] network comes from observational data taken by the giant telescope at the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico. The data is collected passively, i.e. while the telescope is being used actively for other projects, digitised, and sent to [email protected] headquarters. The data is then broken into small chunks, each of which is analysed by one of the programs constituent computers in order to separate "noise" from potentially meaningful signals and the results sent back to Berkeley.
The [email protected] project faces some potential threats, including the possible closure of the Arecibo facility as a result of the continued decrease in operating funds, which shortfall has not been made up by funds from private donors, NASA, non-US research institutions etc. If the necessary funding does not come through, the US National Science Foundation has stated that the facility will close in 2011, thereby ending the current data stream upon which [email protected] depends.
When the project first came on stream, it was one of a very few ways available for enthusiasts to donate computer time to research efforts. Since then, more and more projects have come up and the competition for donated computer time has become that much fiercer.
There has also been an increasing reaction from employers about the use of official computers for "home" projects such as [email protected] All these, combined with the lack of US government funding for SETI research, place a very great strain on [email protected] in particular and the larger SETI effort in general.