Pro IQRA News Updates.
An international team of researchers searching for signs of intelligent life in space has used artificial intelligence (AI) to detect eight promising radio signals in data collected at a US observatory.
The results of their research, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, are fascinating. The team has not yet done a comprehensive analysis, but the paper notes that the signals have many of the properties we would expect if they were created artificially. In other words, it’s the kinds of signals we might pick up from an extraterrestrial civilization beaming into space.
A quick review of the new paper suggests that these are indeed promising signs. They’re even more convincing than perhaps Seti’s most famous candidate, “Wow!” Signal, radio emission bearing the hallmarks of extraterrestrial origin collected by the Ohio Telescope in 1977.
Realistically speaking, these eight new signals are likely to have been generated by human technology. But the real story here is the effectiveness of the artificial intelligence and techniques the team used to extract rare and interesting signals previously buried in the noise of human-generated radio frequency interference, such as cell phones and GPS.
Astronomers working on Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) must filter out interference from radio communications here on Earth.
In this case, Peter Ma of the University of Toronto and his colleagues launched a set of algorithms on a mountain of data collected by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, US. The data was collected through Seti’s initiative called Breakthrough Listen, which was founded by investor Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia, in 2015.
Here are the characteristics astronomers look for in signals that can be generated artificially: First, they are narrowband, which means that radio transmission is limited to a few frequency channels. They also disappear when the telescope moves to another direction in the sky, showing “Doppler drift,” where the frequency of the signal changes in a predictable way over time. We expect Doppler drift because both the transmitter — on a distant planet, for example — and the receiver, on Earth, are moving.
buried in the noise
The first Breakthrough Listen project candidate signal, called BLC1, was first announced in 2020. But it was later traced back to transmissions associated with cheap electronic devices on the planet. However, the application of AI techniques to Breakthrough Listen monitoring software is a potential game-changer in this field. Even seasoned SETI researchers are beginning to think we may be on the cusp of a major scientific breakthrough.
This may explain the renewed interest by groups around the world planning Seti’s success. For example, the Seti Post-Discovery Center was established at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This will examine how humans should react if we discover that we are not alone in the universe.
The Seti post-detection protocols are overseen by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Standing Committee at Seti, which outlines steps scientists must take if a real signal is detected. The IAA has elected to update the text of the protocols later this year.
But the new study highlights a problem with previous attention signals. When the team took another look at the stars associated with the eight narrow-band transmissions, they could no longer detect the signals.
It would not be surprising that many, and perhaps the vast majority of Seti’s well-intentioned references, are isolated events. After all, what are the odds that we’ll point our telescopes in exactly the right direction, at the right time and at the right frequency on multiple occasions?
As I argued here a few years ago, the Seti surveys would benefit greatly from the use of multiple radio telescopes, working in a way known as a classical interferometer grid.
These telescope arrays (groups of several antennas observing together) generate huge amounts of data. With artificial intelligence on board, perhaps the challenge will be more manageable than previously thought.
Breakthrough Listen is already using telescope arrays like MeerKAT in South Africa for Seti searches. In Europe, researchers have been experimenting with arrays that span the globe.
This European approach will help us isolate the signals from man-made interference, give us many independent detections of individual events, and allow us to pinpoint signals to individual stars and possibly orbiting planets.
Among the future projects is the Square Kilometer Array, an international project to build the world’s two largest telescope groups, which will be based in Australia and South Africa. Another upcoming project is the Next Generation VLA (ngVLA), which is a series of linked telescope facilities that will be spread across the United States. These radio telescope arrays will be much more sensitive than current instruments.
It is my belief – and indeed my hope – that intelligent beings are out there waiting to be discovered. The artificial intelligence revolution may be the missing ingredient that previous endeavors lacked. In particular, AI algorithms will eventually evolve into powerful tools that no longer suffer from human biases.
Lord Martin Rees, Chairman of the Breakthrough Listen Advisory Board and Astronomer Royal, has suggested that if we do find extraterrestrials they are likely to be intelligent machines operating in the depths of space, unconstrained by the biological limitations imposed on humans.
If we ever find a bona fide signal, it may be because it was mediated by machines on Earth and in space.