Alien Contact, AI Gets Smarter & More: 5 Things We Learned This Week

alien contact fermi paradox cornell
Scientists plan to start sending out messages to aliens in 2018. Dale O'Dell/ Alamy

From aliens' likely point of contact with humans to an app that can help alcoholics stay away from liquor, here are five things we learned in Tech & Science this week:

  • We now have an estimate on when we can expect aliens to make contact: 1,500 years. Astronomers at Cornell University say TV and radio signals need that much time to reach half of all solar systems in order to be picked up by an intelligent lifeform. "It's possible to hear any time at all, but it becomes likely we will have heard around 1,500 years from now. Until then, it is possible that we appear to be alone—even if we are not. But if we stop listening or looking, we may miss the signals. So we should keep looking," says Evan Solomonides, a co-author of the research.
  • Our web browsing histories may one day be used to predict our risk of illness. Researchers at Columbia University and Microsoft have developed a method of analyzing search logs to reveal patterns of symptoms of pancreatic cancer, enabling them to screen for the disease. "Alerting people about the potential value of seeking medical care can be challenging. Surveillance systems need to convey the uncertainties associated with detection outcomes while balancing other issues such as alarm and anxiety for searchers and liability for search providers," the researchers say.
Pancreatic cancer cells
Pancreatic cancer cells. London Research Institute/ CC
  • Aerosol particles may be making thunderstorms more extreme, according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research is the first confirmation of a long-held theory about such particles, which contribute to cloud formation. The more aerosol articles, the longer clouds last before dissipating into rain, which allows the cloud system to gain more water.
We're Learning Why Rain Storms May Be Getting More Intense
A new study sheds some light on why rainstorms can become more intense. David Gray/Reuters
  • A smartphone app that purports to help heavy drinkers stay away from alcohol is being tested at a London hospital. AlcoChange can be customized to respond to a drinker's specific triggers, and uses GPS technology to then send the user an alert whenever they're near an establishment that sells alcohol. "That doesn't mean that the app will send an alert to users every single time they are near alcohol," says Dr. Gautam Mehta, honorary consultant at the Royal Free and senior lecturer at University College London. "The app is more about identifying specific triggers to help people on the road to recovery."
Pint of beer
A barman pulls a pint of beer in a pub in Liverpool, England, in November 2014. A smartphone app that helps prevent heavy drinkers from going to anywhere selling alcohol is being tested at a London hospital. Phil Noble/Reuters