Science Fiction Science: A Report From the Front Lines of SETI

We are thrilled to welcome Alex Lamb back to the Gollancz blog for a very special guest post. Alex is the author of the Robotoeer trilgoy (Roboteer, Nemesis, Exodus). Today, Alex takes us behind the scenes of the SETI project and talks about the real life science that influences his fiction.

We science fiction writers speculate endlessly about life on other worlds. We dream up alien races and machine civilizations. We conjure interstellar technology out of hand-waved explanations. However, we seldom, if ever, get to actually contribute to the real-world search for such things. But this year, very unexpectedly, I got a chance to do exactly that. This is my Gollancz author report on that adventure. So if you’d like to hear a little about what the search for life in the universe is really like, or how it happens, read on.

Last year, after I finished up Exodus, the final book in the Roboteer trilogy, I found myself casting around for my next project. Around the same time, I met Ethan Summers, CEO of The Underground Engine and Emmy award-winning movie special effects artist. He told me about a project that he wanted to launch, aimed at communicating cutting-edge science topics to the public in an approachable and engaging way.

“All I need to find is a simulation scientist,” he told me.

“I am a simulation scientist,” I replied. “Amongst other things.”

“Awesome!” he said. “Let’s build something!”

This led to a flurry of extremely fun follow-up conversations in which Ethan and I worked together more and more closely. However, his vision remained a dream. That changed when we found ourselves with an invitation to talk to the SETI Institute. This came about because the excellent Charles Lindsay, director of SETI’s artist-in-residence program, got wind of what we were exploring. Charles is an inspiring and broad-minded guy, ever interested in the intersection between science and art. When he asked us to come in to make a presentation to the Institute, Ethan and I were thrilled. What science fiction author doesn’t want the chance to go hang out with the people from SETI and talk about life on other worlds? Of course I wanted to do that.

Fortunately, I knew from prior experience hanging out with astronomers that one thing that got the SETI scientists interested was origin of life research. And what got me hoping that we might pull off a collaboration with them was that I’d actually done some. Years before, I’d had the chance to play about with some models of abiogenesis, or how life starts, during a brief research stint at Princeton. Some of that work had even gone on to inform the background of the Roboteer novels.

SETI cares about the origin of life because it’s hard to do convincing astrobiology without being able to explain what life is. What it’s made of and how it works determines where in the universe it might show up. Now, I knew I couldn’t answer any of the explicit chemistry questions that underpin the search for extraterrestrial organisms. However, I felt sure I could simulate something just enough like organic chemistry to at least communicate SETI’s core mission to the public. The problem was that the code I had wasn’t much to look at. I could initiate something that was like life mathematically speaking, but it looked like what you’d get if a digital unicorn threw up rainbow pixels onto a square plate. And while everyone loves unicorns, I knew that wasn’t going to be good enough.

At this point, I started cobbling code together as fast as I could. I riffed off ideas from various luminaries from the origin of life science – guys like Stuart Kauffman and Dave Deamer. Ethan and I kept working on a less ambitious but better-looking demo for the Institute, but in the background I explored like crazy.

At last, I found something. The code itself was extremely simple – almost absurdly so – but the effect was remarkable. By adding just about twenty lines to my program, I could make a physics model of simple, dead particles suddenly start forming squirming patterns. These patterns did several amazing, unexpected things. Things like chasing each other, growing, splitting, and releasing little seeds. And the longer you watched, the more ornate the patterns became. I showed it to Ethan. He was ecstatic.

“More!” he said. “Make it faster! What does it look like in 3D? How many particles can we have? We need millions!”

By the time we got to deliver our talk to SETI, we had something really exciting to show. Our pitch was that we’d help the public understand search for life in the universe by allowing them to make their own. Watching eyes go wide in that audience as I showed clouds of dead particles assembling themselves into wriggling critters was one of the most gratifying science-moments I’ve ever had. We had a follow-up conversation with Bill Diamond, the CEO of the SETI Institute.

“We’re running an exhibit at the Silicon Valley Comic Con,” he told us. “We have the best location in the house. It’ll be right as you come in the door. The first thing everybody sees. We’d like you guys to be a part of that.”

It will not astonish you to hear that we agreed. However, now we had a serious problem to solve. The code I’d written produced beautiful, unambiguously life-like results, but it harbored a filthy secret. It took days to run. The sexiest footage we’d shown at our talk had been produced by a powerful computer cranking for the better part of a week.

“It needs to be about a thousand times faster,” Ethan mused. I couldn’t help but agree.

What followed was a hectic scramble of research in which I tried to figure out how to GPU-accelerate my software. GPUs are the parallel-processing graphics chips in modern phones and computers. They are extraordinary machines. For the right problems, they can make your code run blisteringly fast. But as it turns out, GPU programming is hard. This is why everyone isn’t doing it already.

I got as far as parallelizing the most basic version of my algorithm before I realized I’d need some expert help to deliver the results on time. This was when we reached out to Arthur Brussee, author of the award-winning TC particles system, gifted technologist, and GPU programmer extraordinaire. Arthur had plenty of projects on the go, and I knew the chance of luring him to our cause with large amounts of money wouldn’t have worked even if we’d had any. However, as it turned out, writing code to build life from scratch on behalf of SETI appealed to him as much as it did us. Before we knew it, Arthur was porting my wonky code to Microsoft Direct Compute. Our artificial life program could now run with a half a million particles in gorgeous, high-resolution real time. Finally, Ethan had a codebase fast and robust enough to decorate with some movie-quality magic.

By the time the convention rolled around at the end of this April, we had a Kinect-enabled interactive demonstration of digital abiogenesis running like melted butter on a twelve-foot-wide display. People loved it – especially kids. I spent a hectic but deeply-rewarding weekend hanging out with members of the SETI team, talking to the public, and becoming an ad-hoc advocate for SETI’s core mission. I even got to meet Seth Shostak, host of the ever-enjoyable Big Picture Science podcasts and SETI Senior Astronomer.

But what did we actually show? Our simulation had no real chemistry in it, so what was the point? Why had SETI made room for a ragtag art collective like us? Because life obeys certain core principles whether it’s made of chemicals, software, machine-parts, or anything else.

For instance, life needs mutation – just a little and not too much. Increase the simulated radiation in our sim so that reproduction can’t happen effectively and everything blurs into mush. Life needs to be the right temperature. Too cold and patterns can’t spread. Too hot and complex structures don’t hold together. But most importantly, life is pattern copying.

The magic sauce I added to my particles was a simple rule that enabled them to copy states between each other. A red particle, for instance, might have a rule saying the following: “If I come into contact with a blue particle and a green one, I copy the information from the blue into the green.”

This leaves you with a red particle and two identical blues. No particle, though, is allowed to copy replicas of itself. What this means is that as soon as combinations of particles capable of mutually copying each other arise, they start taking over. And once that happens, natural selection has already started.

What made our life different from chemical life was that we only had twelve different kinds of particles. By contrast, Nature has millions of different organic molecules to play with. This means that it took a lot longer for life to take off in the real world but the number of possible structures it could then build was almost infinite. By contrast, our artificial life starts running out of new ideas after about ten minutes.

Living and inhabiting this world for just a short time gave me a deep and lasting respect for the SETI Institute and the people who work there. Understanding life and figuring out how to look for it in the universe is an incredibly challenging task. The scientists who champion that search have to look for subtle clues in a cosmos that is inconceivably vast and quieter than the grave. To be a SETI scientist, you have to be ready to look for signals and signs for decades at a time without even a whiff of success. But, to my mind, it is worth it.

I can think of no discovery more likely to transform the human race than finding intelligent life elsewhere. Even finding extraterrestrial bacteria would radically alter our understanding of our place in the universe. While the rest of us on Planet Earth are consumed with the turmoil of the moment, SETI keep staring at the stars, watching, listening, and slowly refining our species’ extra-planetary senses. They do so on a shoestring budget, gaining little recognition for their efforts. Much of their resources come from public donations or public-private partnerships like the Frontier Development Lab. Working with them, at least for a little while, made me extremely proud. And the next time I find myself dreaming up an alien race to put in my novels, I am certain that the lessons I learned collaborating with SETI will be foremost in my mind.

Alex Lamb’s Roboteer trilogy (Roboteer, Nemesis, Exodus) is available now in paperback and ebook.