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Yuri Milner on Why He Staked $100 Million to Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Don't call them aliens, please.


Back in July, Russian entrepreneur and investor Yuri Milner announced he was investing $100 million in a new project. This wasn’t surprising; he invests often. The surprising part: He was investing that $100 million in an unprecedented effort to dispatch radio waves into space to search for extraterrestrial life.

Why in the world would he do that?

“Most of the people will agree that this is one of the most existential, philosophical questions,” Milner told Re/code’s Kara Swisher at the Vanity Fair Summit. “We as human beings should devote some resources [to] address the biggest existential questions.”

The initiative, dubbed Breakthrough Listen, has snagged up two of the largest radio telescopes on the globe, in West Virginia and Australia. Right now, they are relying on radio to send out missives searching for life. But Milner said they are also toying with using lasers. Stephen Hawking is involved.

Frank Drake, chairman emeritus of the SETI Institute, who has devoted over four decades to this search, joined Milner onstage. “We’re expecting friendly aliens,” he assured the audience. “We also think they’re smart aliens.” Drake did stipulate that he prefers the term extraterrestrial, or ET, given some of the less benevolent connotations of the term alien.

Despite some recent green shoots, like water on Mars, both men admitted, a bit remorsefully, that they have yet to find signs of life. And Drake said they have not seen “any evidence” that the U.S. government is hiding alien life from us.

How long will Milner keep searching, and funding the searching? “A $100 million to start with,” he said. “But I think we have a responsibility to keep looking.”

“Frankly, no one else was doing it,” Milner shrugged. “So.”

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