The SETI Business: The SETI Industry?

When I head to my kitchen for a cup of hot brewed inspiration (or, later in the day, maybe a cold brewski), my computer turns to the search for E.T.

Like thousands of other people, I’m running SETI@home (SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as my screensaver.

While it’s described as a peer-to-peer program, SETI@home is more like Napster. Computers hit a central server, download a few minutes of data gathered at monitoring stations in Puerto Rico, and upload the analysis done on a previous set of data. Then, when their owners are sleeping (or watching TV), the computers get to work on the new data they’ve downloaded.

The result is that complex signals no single computer could ever analyze before are, in fact, being analyzed. Who knows, maybe we’ll find the Betelgeuse version of “I Love Lucy.” (If we do, it will be thousands of years after its broadcast, indicating a remarkably advanced civilization. Perhaps they’ll have figured out what “Babaloo!” meant.)

How do we get from E.T. phoning home to the hard reality of trying to make money? The fact is that the architecture used by SETI@home can also be used for other huge projects. Intel is sponsoring an effort to find a cancer cure using the same architecture, which it calls “distributed computing.”

What we’re building, using the Internet, are virtual supercomputers. Scientists met in Australia last month to look at applications for what they call the “Grid,” and (best of all) venture capitalists are not only flitting around the space, they have already backed some plays:

Most of these companies are just now hiring sales executives. They’ve barely scratched the surface of distributed computing’s marketing possibilities. That’s a brainstorming session you can join.

The point is that when you think of the Internet as being just another way to print, or another way to broadcast, or another way to run a store and market to people, you’re really limiting your view of the thing. The Internet is all of these things, and so much more. It’s a way to connect all people, and all machines, to do things that were simply impossible before. All we need to do is imagine those things and get to work on them.

The Internet is just starting to transform the world we live in, as more and more people think of it in more and more exciting, new, and different ways. So forget all your cares and financial woes. These are the early days, mate. You’re in on the ground floor.

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