SETI@home is probably the best-known distributed computing project in the world. Several readers questioned not just the efficiency of spending computer cycles sifting for alien communications with SETI@home, but whether this search is based on a sensible idea in the first place. Reader TheSync, pointing to a Princeton research paper, offered an interesting case for another approach to seeking alien intelligence:
"Radio SETI is really a waste of time. Optical SETI is the logical choice because
- Visible light-emitting devices are smaller and lighter than microwave or radio-emitting devices.
- Visible light-emitting devices produce higher bandwidths and can consequently send information much faster.
- Interference from natural sources of microwaves is more common than from visible sources.
- Naturally occurring nanosecond pulses of light are mostly likely nonexistent, although there are all kinds of radio signals that could be similar to intentional SETI transmissions. Thus Optical SETI does not require grid computing to find signals.
- Exact frequencies of light are not required, as nanosecond unfiltered light pulses would still outshine the planet's star by over 30 times.
Optical SETI detection out to 100 light-years is doable today, with a bit more work optical SETI out to 1,000 light-years is possible."
More generally, reader theCat says he gave up on SETI@home "at the exact moment when I recognized that radio broadcast, even assuming other life forms discover it, is just a quick stepping stone toward more efficient/direct means of distribution, like wires or fiber. Or drums. Or pheremones. Or telepathy. ... SETI has always barked up the wrong tree. Not because there are no intelligent races out there — and I really do suspect there are — but because if they are intelligent in a way that we would even recognize then they've moved on to other forms of communication, or settled into a fine state of just dealing with every day as it comes and not worring about events in their version of Iraq."
Whether or not their approaches are optimal, reader exp(pi*sqrt(163)) defended the more esoteric distributed computing projects like SETI on a pessimistic ground, writing that after two years in computational chemistry for what is now GlaxoSmithKline, "I became strongly convinced that computers do not find cures for diseases - or even give you much understanding of illnesses. Molecular modeling is so far from being able to model in vivo molecules that it's practically worthless. ... [W]e already know that trials at this stage are poorly correlated with actual drug usefulness, simulations are just as much a waste of resources as SETI. ... It seems to me that molecular modeling is actually one of those hard 'macho' (but ultimately pointless) projects that gets funding because to criticize it makes you seem anti-drug, anti-therapy and anti-human-progress. (I'm not saying people shouldn't try to model molecules. This is a great blue-sky goal. But people who are trying to find drugs or therapies shouldn't be wasting their time with such techniques.)"
A persistent suggestion that SETI@home and similar projects were wasteful for failing to deliver enough tangible benefits to present-day society provoked several readers to defend the importance of voluntary participation; Chrisq compared the cycles spent on distributed science to donations to charities, writing "I don't like the way that some animal charities get more money than children's charities. Obviously the people making donations disagree. The point is the donor decides — if someone is giving something away, then they decide."
One reader suggested sarcastically "You know what's a waste of time? Gardening. You spend all this time and energy just to raise a few tomatoes that could have been bought at the store for cheap. ... People should stop gardening and focus their time and energy on solving global warming, but I don't presume to tell anyone what they should be doing with their time."
Another offered a tongue-in-cheek response providing a few facetious parallels: "It's a waste that people use their cars to go see a movie when they could be delivering food to the homeless shelter. It's a waste that people are storing ice cream in the fridge when they could be storing donated blood plasma."
Many readers, though, provided examples of projects that they consider worthy their computing efforts, either instead of or in addition to SETI.
"Personally, I always felt SETI was not very philanthropic — more like an amusing experiment in grid computing," says tedgyz, and suggests that grid.org to users who would like to spend some cycles on medical research. "They provide great features for managing all your computers that run the grid projects. You can even choose which research to participate in. And, to satiate a geek's lust for power, they have rankings for your aggregate compute time."
Perhaps the WSJ article draws a false dichotomy, however: one reader asked "Does Carl realize that it's possible to crunch more than one project at a time with BOINC? Right now I'm attached SETI, Einstein, Rosetta & LHC. It works on one for a bit and then will switch to another for a bit. And so what if SETI@home will never find anything, it's a cool looking screen saver!"
(Another reader reported dissatisfaction with BOINC: "I upgraded from the old SETI@Home client to BOINC when it became available - but the BOINC client required too much effort on my part and was getting in my way. ... I'm donating my CPU cycles to some altruistic cause, I don't want to have to RTFM. I just want to install and forget. For this reason I miss the old SETI client, and have, as a result, now stopped contributing.")
Eventual benefits aside, some readers doubt that the medical research projects' goals parallel their own: one reader writes "... I won't do the ones for the drug companies. My grandfather was denied a chance at surviving cancer in the 60's, but the big drug companies went to the FDA against the doctor who had a good success rate for curing colon/stomach cancer because one of the chemicals used was not FDA approved. The big drug companies are not looking for cures, they are looking for drugs to sell."
In response to fears that medical-research undertakings would exploit their volunteers' contributions to the data crunching, Lars Westergren several times pointed out that the Stanford-based Folding@home protein-folding project, at least, has committed itself to sharing the data generated by its volunteers, citing the project's promise (found in its FAQ) that
"We will not sell the data or make any money off of it. ... Moreover, we will make the data available for others to use. In particular, the results from Folding@home will be made available on several levels. Most importantly, analysis of the simulations will be submitted to scientific journals for publication, and these journal articles will be posted on the web page after publication. Next, after publication of these scientific articles which analyze the data, the raw data of the folding runs will be available for everyone, including other researchers, here on this web site."
In another comment, Westergren argued that "[e]ven if this worst-case scenario did happen [of donated cycles being turned into secret-formula drugs], the cycles donated would not be wasted. You would have helped advance human scientific research, and the medicines created would still be saving peoples' lives."
Along similar lines, as reader lhbtubajon puts it, "[i]f a company starts manufacturing a product so expensive that they cannot make a profit on it, they will soon cease to exist, as will the beneficial product they hoped to give to the world."
Whatever the ends to which the data is eventually put, many readers raised another objection: power consumption. Shisha outlines the inherent uncertainty of whether cycle-donation makes sense:
"All those free computer cycles are not that free. Modern CPUs consume more electricity to do more work and someone has to pay the electricity bills. Busy CPUs need more cooling and fans that run at full throttle for a year do wear out and fail (and you risk burning some important component, even if the PC is designed to shut down when it detects overheating). That's simply because desktop PCs are desktop PCs and not workstations and the assumption is that the fans will have to run at full throttle for maybe half an hour at a time. The real costs are not easy to work out, but it might, just might be more efficient to donate the money to charity."
(This analysis, according to another reader, "[underestimates] the quality of a desktop PC. I ran SETI and climateprediction.net for about 4 years straight on a dual G4 PowerMac. Ran like a champ. 100% CPU for months straight. Never had a problem. They can take abuse.")
Placing the WSJ article into context, FlynnMP3 pointed out that author Gomes isn't trying to force anyone to change their computing behavior, and suggested an argument that SETI@home might specifically hold greater worth than can be divined from its success rate so far:
This is merely an opinion piece. It's easy to take the pragmatic road and donate personal computing cycles to cancer research or something as equally earth based, citing return-of-results arguments.
I postulate that the returns for finding out if there is intelligent life in outer space has greater implications for the world's population. Not immediate concerns mind you (unless something extraordinary happens), but the practical usage will eventually seep out of the acedemic and scientific circles and benefit the population in ways that we cannot possibly imagine."
More succintly, another reader's understatement may explain just why so many people are happy to donate a few watts in the quest for E.T. life: "Odd, I can think of few things that would change life on earth more than a verifiable intelligent signal from outer space. This story reminds me to go download SETI@home again."
Thanks to the readers whose comments helped inform this discussion, especially those quoted above: