SETI Expert: ‘Search For ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence’ Needs New, More Accurate, Name

The search for signs of alien intelligence in the universe has been ongoing for centuries, with the organized manifestation of that search — SETI, or the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence — by scientists now closing in on roughly a century. The organization that bears the name SETI in its title (the SETI Institute) itself has been in operation since 1984. However, there have been many attempts by individuals and organizations over the years to seek out evidence of extraterrestrial life and civilizations, and a founder of the SETI Institute believes it is high time the search chooses a different name for the process.

According to, Jill Tarter, who once headed the NASA SETI program (canceled in 1993), in addition to her work at the SETI Institute, thinks that the search for signs of aliens should have a more accurate name. She told a gathering at the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe, which was held at the University of California, Irvine, that the phrase “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” was problematic, generating a misperception of what scientists in the field were trying to accomplish. She suggested that the more accurate “search for technosignatures” would be more precise, because scientists (citizen and professional alike) were engaged in attempting to detect signs of technology that could possibly be created by intelligent alien civilizations.

“We need to be very careful about our language,” Tarter said back on Jan. 18. “SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely. [SETI] … is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.

“[The acronym] ‘SETI’ has been problematic in history, and we should just drop [it] and just continue to talk about a search for technosignatures.”

Radio-telescopes at the Allen Array in California where the SETI Institute conducts its search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Regardless of the name employed in future searches, experts in the field believe that advances in technologies being used to detect and new methods being used to determine evidence of the possible presence of extraterrestrial civilizations — or even life — will finally see positive results within the next few decades. In fact, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, predicted that evidence of the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials will be confirmed within the next 20 years, according to Newsweek.

Jill Tarter herself, speaking at the presentation in California, stated that she, too, believed confirmation was imminent, at least in the biological sense. She noted that she believed that “the 21st century is going to be the century of biology on Earth and beyond.”

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