“Searching for Weirdness” –‘We’re Just Starting to Learn How to Look for Advanced Alien Life Using AI’ (Today’s Most Popular)

“We’re just starting to learn how to look for, in machine learning, what’s called anomaly detection,” says Dan Wertheimer, chief scientist for SETI at the University of California at Berkeley. “In anomaly detection, you classify things — ‘this is a curved signal, this is a sinusoidal signal, this is a pulsed signal’ — and if it’s not one of those things, it’ll say, ‘Hey, I found something that’s not following all these categories, this is an anomaly.’ It will alert you, and you’ll take a look at it and see if it’s interesting. We are not doing that now, we’re learning how to do that.”

“Two hundred years from now, people are going to look at what we’re doing, and probably laugh and say, ‘Why weren’t they looking for tachyons, or subspace communications,’ or something like that,” says Wertheimer.

Over the next 20 years, or 200 years, continues Alan Boyle, author of “The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference” in GeekWire, SETI may come to stand for sensing extraterrestrial irregularities, ranging from unusual atmospheric chemistry to higher-than-expected thermal emissions. The telltale signs of life beyond our solar system may even be associated with phenomena we haven’t yet come across.

“We’re just starting to learn how to look for, in machine learning, what’s called anomaly detection,” said Wertheimer during a presentation held at the university in conjunction with the World Conference of Science Journalists in October. “In anomaly detection, you classify things — ‘this is a curved signal, this is a sinusoidal signal, this is a pulsed signal’ — and if it’s not one of those things, it’ll say, ‘Hey, I found something that’s not following all these categories, this is an anomaly.’ It will alert you, and you’ll take a look at it and see if it’s interesting. We are not doing that now, we’re learning how to do that.”

So far, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been dominated by radio telescope surveys looking for anomalous patterns that may point to alien transmissions. But SETI’s practitioners are realizing that E.T. may make its presence known in other ways.

 

 

This map from the University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory shows the known planetary systems within about 100 light-years from Earth, plotted on a logarithmic scale. The systems with potentially habitable exoplanets are highlighted with red circles. (PHL @ UPR Arecibo)

The Berkeley presentation brought together leading SETI researchers — plus one of the leaders in the study of potentially habitable exoplanets, Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University of London.

Anglada-Escudé said the planet search is increasingly focusing in on potentially habitable worlds — such as Proxima Centauri b, the nearest exoplanet, which he and his Pale Red Dot team detected just last year. “The detection has taken so long not because we didn’t have the technology, but because we didn’t know where to search,” he said.

Now that astronomers know how to check red dwarf stars for potentially habitable, close-in planets, “this is going to be happening more often,” Anglada-Escudé said.

Which raises an issue: So far, astronomers have judged the livability of alien planets on the basis of their orbital positions, assumed densities and how much light they get from their parent stars. But to determine whether they’re truly habitable, and whether they have a chance of harboring life, much more information is needed.

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