Why Searching For Aliens Is Good For Business

The SETI Institute has stopped listening for aliens, a casualty of government budget cuts. The business community and private donors should pony up. Here's why it's not as crazy as it sounds.

Contact movie

Nerds everywhere today are in mourning. Funding for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., has dried up, meaning the search for extraterrestrial intelligence lost one of its champions. In an letter dated April 22nd, reports the San Jose Mercury News, SETI Institute's CEO, Tom Pierson, reported that the array had to be put into "hibernation." The equipment will be maintained, but won't be able to operate—the government funding simply isn't there.

After choking back our tears and shaking our heads in remembrance of Carl Sagan, we began to wonder what the implications were for technology. Would the SETI@home project, which we've covered numerous times in the past, be disrupted, and if so, what of the general project of distributed computing?

Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, says that the Institute never contributed data to SETI@home, which is pretty much exculsively a UC Berkeley initiative, so distributed computing won't feel any repercussions from the recent news. But that doesn't mean that high technology, and the economy, didn't arguably sustain a real blow today, along with the hopes of making contact anytime soon. The economy and businesses did stand to benefit from SETI, and not just because of trading opportunities with denizens of the Orion Belt.

"I think it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that SETI enterprise is going to create vast new markets," Shostak tells Fast Company. "But there is this: the kind of tech that is developed for SETI, these antenna arrays, monitor 100 million channels simultaneously. There's no commercial application for that now, but the lesson of history is that whenever you develop a new technical capability, you often find an interesting market for it."

The shuttering of the SETI Institute should provide a reminder that basic research, while often a hard sell in the face of budget cuts and social problems, should not be neglected. "Basic research eventually does have spinoffs," says Shostak, citing studies to the effect that even long before commercial space travel became a thing, NASA was returning an estimated 10 dollars for every dollar that was spent on it "simply because of the technology that was developed," says Shostak. "That's the general lesson of basic research, just done for curiosity—it usually returns on the order of 10 times the expenditures. Cancer will probably be cured by the basic research, not the applied research."

Shostak says that the Institute is hoping for alternative funding streams. The U.S. Air Force had used the array as a test bed, and there's some hope they might revive it; the Institute is also reaching out to private donors. The dearth of funding comes just as SETI was becoming truly exciting; astronomers have recently been able to identify candidates for planets that might have liquid oceans, says Shostak. As he put it to the Mercury News, this is like having "the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock."

But remember, if you're going to pony up for SETI, you don't even have to do it for the sake of exploration, or science, or knowledge, or cosmic connectedness. Do it for the American economy, or for something even more selfish—your gadget lust. The entire gadget industry, Shostak added, more or less rests on the shoulders of a handful of men and women who just wanted to ask some basic questions about the universe. The modern semiconductor industry relies on quantum mechanics, a field that seemed so oddball over a hundred years ago that even Einstein found it too wacky. "The people doing this, they weren't thinking of products," says Shostak. And yet that's what resulted; the vacuum tube gave way to the transistor. "You wouldn't have that if it weren't for a few people just being curious about why hydrogen labs were misbehaving in the lab 100 years ago," says Shostak.

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