this issue: november 1, 1999
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In a very short period of time, the SETI@Home program has grown from a small project based at the University of California at Berkeley to a bona fide phenomenon, with well over one million registered users at last count. To participate, all someone has to do is download a screensaver than crunches data while the computer is idle. Not exactly the vision most people have of the search for extra-terrestrial life, but it still has lots of folks excited.
SETI@Home is probably the most successful example (in terms of popularity) of distributed computer to date. There have been numerous other projects but none have gained the mainstream popularity of SETI. Most likely due in part to the very nature of the project; it's a lot easier to get people interested in a chance at finding ET than cracking RSA encryption.
Another aspect of its popularity is the ability to form teams. This essentially just adds up the stats from the team's members and ranks them. Naturally, this has made things a bit more competitive, with people finding ways to maximize the effectiveness of the software in hopes of making it to the top of the rankings. Although for the most part, the primary motivation for most people is still the prospect of detecting a signal of extra-terrestrial origin.
In fact, it was the team aspect that nudged me into downloading the software. I had considered doing it earlier but it's always been at the bottom of my to-do list, along with all the other esoteric things I never get around to doing. Now I find myself wishing I'd signed up earlier.
A very important part of the project's success is its ease of use. If you can set up a screen saver you can set up SETI@Home, it's as simple as that. And contrary to what you may be thinking, it's not necessary to be online all the time in order for it to work. But rather, small packets of data are downloaded to your computer, which are then analyzed while your computer is offline. You then only have to go online again when you're finished with a packet. Considering the small team at the core of the project, it's a very impressive piece of software.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the SETI@Home project, however, is the example it sets for future scientific endeavors. Assuming extra-terrestrial life isn't found, that is. It has proved that enormous amounts of data can be analyzed just as well, if not more efficiently, by distributing bits and pieces of it to hundreds of thousands of personal computers.
SETI@Home was originally set to be a two-year project, but judging from the amount interest, it seems likely there will be another similar project following.
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