We Could Discover Aliens Before 2100, Leading Scientist Predicts

Is there anyone else out there? It's a question plenty of people have asked, but no one has been able to answer—yet. But scientists think that may change, and sooner rather than later.

One of those scientists is Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute research center in California. Tarter has spent her career working on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and during a speech she presented in Florida last week, she hinted at a timeline for the next big discovery.

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"I think that in this century we are going to be finding life beyond Earth," Tarter said during the talk, according to Florida Today. "We're really working on an ancient human question. And that's very, very rewarding. We might, within the 21st century, have the answer to whether there is life beyond Earth. And we've been asking that question for a very, very long time."

Tarter was speaking at a conference about cross-cultural management, and she wanted to give the attendees a greater context for solving the big problems that face us. She suggested that searching for alien life could be a sort of practice project—one that is less divisive but requires the same big-picture thinking as challenges like food shortages and climate change.

"[The search for extraterrestrial intelligence] as an endeavor may, in fact, need to be multi-, multi-generational before we figure out the right thing to look for," she told Newsweek. "This cosmic perspective is really something that we all need to adopt."

For Tarter, the 2100 date reflects a prediction made in a 2004 scientific paper that science of this century would be dominated by biology, just as the one prior was dominated by physics. "I think we see that already playing out in spades," she said—and she says taking that beyond Earth itself is only natural.

An artist's portrayal of the Kepler Space Telescope, a major development in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, spotting exoplanets. NASA/JPL

But there's a big if: Tarter says the biggest challenge is securing the funding needed to see a field through multiple scientific generations. That's been particularly hard for scientists looking for technological signals, rather than focusing on simpler, single-celled life. She thinks success will also depend on adopting new technologies that could revolutionize how scientists search, like using neural networks to process data in new ways.

"Instead of us telling the computers what artifacts and signal types to look for, the machines will be smart enough and fast enough to tell us what's in the data that isn't noise," Tarter said. "It's a big ocean and we're just sticking our toe into it, but it's clearly the way to go."