This SkyNet Reaches for the Stars


When you hear the world “SkyNet,” no doubt mental images spring to mind of a nuclear attack orchestrated by a self-aware artificial intelligence gone rogue, not to mention time-traveling homicidal humanoid robots with thick Austrian accents. That’s how deeply the mythology of the Terminator franchise has penetrated popular culture.

But the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) associates SkyNet with their new community computing project, which connects the spare processing power from thousands of personal computers worldwide.

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Launched seven months ago, theSkyNet has been crunching data on behalf of radio astronomers around the world, thanks to its 6000 active (and counting) members, who have completed more than 700 million processing jobs between them.

And the program has just expanded beyond radio astronomy to a telescope that relies on visible light by partnering with the PanSTARRS1 Science Consortium, designed to examine large portions of the sky at once to collect light from distant galaxies.

ICRAR director Peter Quinn said that it would take an average computer one thousand years to process all the data being collected by Pan-STARRS1. Working with theSkyNet, he thinks that time will be cut down to a mere two years.

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All you need to participate and run theSkyNet on your personal computer is Java 1.6 or above, and at least 2 GB of RAM. The project uses a piece of software called Nereus to handle the sending, processing and receiving of small individual data packets. Your computer then processes the packet of radio astronomy data and sends it back to the main server.

It’s similar to Einstein@Home, designed to help hunt for gravitational waves, and SETI@Home, which sought to harness the power of home personal computers to search the skies for possible alien signals.

If you’re concerned about security — especially viruses, trojans, or someone remotely hacking into your files — have no fear! The folks at theSkyNet assure us that the Nereus client software sticks within the confines of Java software. So the data arrives at your computer, gets processed, and gets returned to the main server with no need to be saved to your hard drive. It can’t access your computer at all.

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It won’t slow down your computer either. That’s the advantage of breaking everything down in small packets of data, designed to be processed at a rate that shouldn’t affect your computer’s other functions at all — at least not in any way you’d notice.

And just in case you’re worried that this is an elaborate ploy by a futuristic, self-aware artificial intelligence hell-bent on wiping out the human race, the latest press release offers the following disclaimer: “theSkyNet is not and never will be a sentient computer program bend on running the world. We promise.”

They’re out to conquer the universe instead.

Image: Randall Munroe, xkcd

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