01 September 1989

Communal efforts free scientific minds

Lovelace was recently reminiscing with her friend Babbage about the early days of their collaboration. “It must be a very pleasant merry sort of thing to have a Fairy in one's service,” she wrote, amused at the thought of Babbage taking his ease in London, while at Ockham Park she hurried to revise and post him the latest explanatory Note on the Analytical Engine.

This seems a most pleasant analogy to the widely-publicized work of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at Home (SETI@home) project. Daily the Arecibo radio telescope generates some 35 gigabytes of data, which requires complex Fourier analysis. The inspired idea of the SETI@home organisers at UC Berkeley, USA, was to recruit users of personal Engines throughout the world to help with this immense task. Each user downloads a ‘screen-saver’ that busies itself with analysing blocks of radio data whenever the owner is idle (perhaps, as Lovelace recalls writing of Babbage, “feasting & flirting in luxury” over dinner).

So far, the 600,000 users have together logged 8600 years of processing time: a remarkable achievement! Babbage, as is his wont, lectured Lovelace on spare processor cycles, redundancy, and massively distributed parallelism. Lovelace felt that he was missing a broader observation: SETI@home is a move away from local computing toward wide participation by anyone who is interested. It foresees a society whose very fabric would sustain the processing of scientific information. With such resources, scientists could focus immediately on a project’s intellectual aims, not the hardware investment forced upon anyone who must process data alone. A further effect could be wider scientific literacy and democratic, cooperative science - even an end to novelist CP Snow’s division between the ‘Two Cultures’ of art and science.

At present, this is still a dream. Studying Usenet newsgroups, Lovelace found that talk of SETI@home centred on the technicalities of bandwidth and work-units, sometimes degenerating into frank boasting of Engine speeds. Such competition, it has to be admitted, is central to the unusual success of this project. Its web site publishes league tables, and encourages groups to compete in processing the most data. Lovelace fears that a competitive urge may be inevitable human nature; but SETI@home certainly shines as a model for harnessing this trait toward a communal scientific effort.