The search for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life has been joined by a specialized AI initiative known as “Breakthrough Listen.”
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, has been revolutionizing many areas of scientific research; most notably, as we have often written about in these pages, AI is dramatically changing medical research and drug discovery. Now AI is being leveraged for a discovery of a different sort. Breakthrough Listen is an AI-driven initiative searching for “technosignatures,” or signs of intelligent life in the universe.
In a paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the team analyzed 480 hours of data from the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia and reported eight previously undetected signals of interest that have certain characteristics expected of genuine technosignatures.
“The key issue with any technosignature search is looking through this huge haystack of signals to find the needle that might be a transmission from an alien world,” explained Dr. Steve Croft, an astrophysicist with the Breakthrough Listen team at the University of California, Berkeley. The vast majority of the signals detected by our telescopes originate from our own technology – GPS satellites, mobile phones, and the like. Peter’s algorithm gives us a more effective way to filter the haystack and find signals that have the characteristics we expect from technosignatures.”
Classical technosignature algorithms compare scans where the telescope is pointed at a target point in the sky with scans when the telescope moves to a nearby position in order to identify signals that may be coming from only that specific point. These techniques are highly effective – for example, they can successfully identify the Voyager 1 space probe at a distance of 20 billion kilometers. But these algorithms struggle in crowded regions of the radio spectrum, where the challenge is akin to listening for a whisper in a crowded room.
The Breakthrough Listen team is led by University of Toronto undergraduate student Peter Ma, who began working with the team while still in high school and a student of Dr. Croft’s.
The process developed by Ma inserts simulated signals into real data and trains an AI algorithm known as an “autoencoder” to learn their fundamental properties. The output from this process is fed into a second algorithm known as a “random forest classifier,” which learns to distinguish the candidate signals from the noisy background.
“In 2021, our classical algorithms uncovered a signal of interest, denoted BLC1, in data from the Parkes telescope,” said Dr. Andrew Siemion, Breakthrough Listen’s Principal Investigator. “Peter’s algorithm is even more effective in finding signals like this. Any technosignature candidate needs to be confirmed, however, and when we looked at these targets again with the GBT, the signals did not reappear. But by applying this new technique to even larger datasets, we can more effectively identify technosignature candidates, and hopefully eventually even a confirmed technosignature.”
“It’s exciting to see new approaches like this being developed by imaginative young people like Peter at the beginning of their scientific careers,” said Breakthrough Initiatives Executive Director Dr. S. Pete Worden. “We’ll continue to monitor the stars Peter observed, and we’ll continue to develop our use of artificial intelligence to help us try to answer humanity’s most profound question: are we alone?”
How BigRio Helps Bring Advanced AI Solutions to All Areas of Research
The announcement of AI being used in unique ways by young innovative minds like Peter Ma has done to enhance the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is what BigRio is all about. We pride ourselves on being a facilitator and incubator for such advances in leveraging AI to improve the world.
In fact, we like to think of ourselves as a “Shark Tank for AI.”
If you are familiar with the TV series, then you know that, basically, what they do is hyper-accelerate the most important part of the incubation process – visibility. You can’t get better visibility than getting out in front of celebrity investors and a TV audience of millions of viewers. Many entrepreneurs who have appeared on that program – even those who did not get picked up by the Sharks – succeeded because others who were interested in their concepts saw them on the show.
At BigRio, we may not have a TV audience, but we can do the same. We have the expertise to not only weed out the companies that are not ready for the market, as the sharks on the TV show do but also mentor and get those that we feel are readily noticed by the right people in the AI investment community.
You can read much more about how AI is redefining scientific research in my new book Quantum Care: A Deep Dive into AI for Health Delivery and Research. While the book’s primary focus is on healthcare delivery, it also takes a deep dive into AI in general, with specific chapters on IoT and NLP technologies.
Rohit Mahajan is a Managing Partner with BigRio. He has a particular expertise in the development and design of innovative solutions for clients in Healthcare, Financial Services, Retail, Automotive, Manufacturing, and other industry segments.
BigRio is a technology consulting firm empowering data to drive innovation and advanced AI. We specialize in cutting-edge Big Data, Machine Learning, and Custom Software strategy, analysis, architecture, and implementation solutions. If you would like to benefit from our expertise in these areas or if you have further questions on the content of this article, please do not hesitate to contact us.