Frank Drake first became fascinated by the concept of extraterrestrial life when he was eight years old, and his passion for that unknown has shaped his entire life.
He’s now the chairman emeritus of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, which aims to “explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”
Founded in 1984, SETI searches for radio or light signals indicative of life on other planets, among other things. Drake believes that finding out whether or not there is other intelligent life beyond Earth is one of the most existential philosophical questions humanity can face. He’s surprised by the lack of funding the institute as received of late.
“For many years, we were supported by successful people in Silicon Valley who appreciated what we were doing, but that funding has sort of faded away over the last ten years,” Drake said on stage at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit. “SETI is now in dire straights.”
Instead, the tech sector seems more interested in efforts inside our current solar system, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Although Drake believes that those efforts are equally important, he says that there is already more government focus and investment in that area.
“To us, [how to connect with extraterrestrial intelligence] is the most important question ever — to have only 20 people working on it on a shoe-string budget seems stupid,” he says.
He shared the stage with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who recently invested $US100 million in finding out whether or not we’re alone in the universe (not directly through SETI, though the institute supports his plan, called “Breakthrough Listen”).
Milner explained his investment on stage as something that he thought was incredibly important — and “frankly, no one else was doing it.” He believes his money will last ten years, but hopes that others will contribute to the cause as well.