While these efforts are broadly similar to what’s been done for decades, they are not your daddy’s SETI. The rapid growth in digital processing means that far larger swaths of the radio dial can be examined at one go and—in the case of the Allen array—many star systems can be checked out simultaneously. The array now examines three stars at once, but additional computer power could boost that to more than 100. Within two decades, SETI experiments will be able to complete a reconnaissance of 1 million star systems, which is hundreds of times more than have been carefully examined so far. SETI practitioners from Frank Drake to Carl Sagan have estimated that the galaxy currently houses somewhere between 10,000 and a few million broadcasting societies. If these estimates are right, then examining 1 million star systems could well lead to a discovery. So, if the premise of SETI has merit, we should find a broadcast from E.T. within a generation. That would spare me the expense of buying you a cup of coffee.
Furthermore, scientists have been diversifying. For two decades, some SETI researchers have used conventional optical telescopes to look for extremely brief laser flashes coming from the stars. In many ways, aliens might be more likely to communicate by pulsed light than radio signals, for the same reason that people are turning to fiber optics for Internet access: It can, at least in principle, send 100,000 times as many bits per second as radio can. These so-called optical SETI experiments have been limited to looking at one star system at a time. But like their radio cousins, they’re poised to become speedier as new technology allows them to survey ever-wider tracts of sky.