UC Berkeley computer scientist David Anderson and astronomer Dan Werthimer and several colleagues are taking that infamous brand of astronomy, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), in a decidedly more intelligent direction. Five years after Congress put the kibosh on NASA-funded SETI research, and nearly two years after the death of SETI guru Carl Sagan, the alien signal-watchers have been scrambling for new funds and new friends. They've found a few in Microsoft's Nathan Myhrvold and Paul Allen, and in other high-tech geeks at Sun and Disney. Even so, SETI astronomers have decided that the best way to step up their research in the next decade and beyond is to begin delegating it to us earthlings, our computers, and the Internet.

Late this fall, a project at UC Berkeley called SETI@home — dreamed up by David Gedye, former director of online gaming at Bellevue, Wash.-based Starwave — will finally get underway. Its extraordinary aim is to sift through millions of gigabytes of radio-telescope data from outer space in the hunt for an alien needle in the interstellar haystack. Through the project's Website and word of mouth, more than 100,000 people have already signed up. When it launches, says Werthimer, one of the world's leading SETI astronomers and SETI@home's chief scientist, "it will be the largest distributed computing project ever attempted" — and may lead the way for new means and markets for distributed computing."

"SETI@home gives us 10 times more [signal-detecting] sensitivity than what we and other SETI groups have now," Werthimer says. Anderson adds: "We're exploring a part of the SETI space that has been impossible to do before. When the whole thing is up and working, one million users isn't out of the question."

SETI@home has struggled to find the necessary funding — $200,000 was the initial target — to get itself launched, but only because Gedye and Werthimer turned down big bucks from companies such as Microsoft, fearing that corporate ownership might turn their project into a commercial gimmick — "you know, a UFO thing," Werthimer says. They settled on a $50,000 matching grant from the Planetary Society to get a bare-bones version of SETI@home up and running. Meanwhile, Sun is considering putting its money where its slogan is and donating the downtime of a 30,000-node network.

With a 100,000-plus constituency of interested CPU donors, the project might become a watershed for corporate problem solving and a whole lot more. The big question the entrepreneurial-minded are asking is this: As the Net expands prolifically, might there be a way to tap all those unused cycles and network connections and fold them into viable products and services? SETI@home is already encouraging an evolving market for Internet-based metacomputing.