Toronto student’s algorithm helps detect radio signals emitting from 5 distant stars
A new artificial intelligence algorithm created by a Toronto student is helping researchers search the stars for signs of life.
Peter Xiangyuan Ma, a University of Toronto undergraduate student and researcher, said he started working on the algorithm while he was in Grade 12 during the pandemic.
“I was just looking for projects and I was interested in astronomy,” he told CTV News Toronto.
The idea was to help distinguish between technological radio signals created by human technologies and signals that were potentially coming from other forms of life in space.
“What we're looking for is signs of technology that signifies if the sender is intelligent or not. And so unsurprised to us, we keep on finding ourselves,” Ma explained. “We don't want to be looking at our own noisy signals.”
Using this algorithm, Ma said researchers were able to discover eight new radio signals being emitted from five different stars about 30 to 90 light years away from the Earth.
These signals, Ma said, would disappear when researchers looked away from it, which rules out, for the most part, interference from a signal originating from Earth. When they returned to the area, the signal was still there.
“We're all very suspicious and scratching our heads,” he said. “We proved that we found things that we wanted to find … now, what do we do with all these? That's another separate issue.”
- Download our app to get local alerts on your device
- Get the latest local updates right to your inbox
Steve Croft, Project Scientist for Breakthrough Listen on the Green Bank Telescope, the institute whose open source data was the inspiration for Ma’s algorithm, said that finding radio signals in space is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
“You've got to recognize the haystack itself and make sure that you don't throw the needle away as you're looking at the individual pieces of hay,” Croft, who collaborated on Ma’s research, told CTV News Toronto.
An image of the Green Bank Telescope is seen here. (Credit Breakthrough Listen / Steve Croft)
Croft said algorithms being used to discover these signals have to account for multiple characteristics, including the position they are coming from in the sky and whether or not the transmission changes over time, which could indicate if it’s coming from a rotating planet or star.
“The algorithm that Peter developed has enabled us to do this more efficiently,” he said.
The challenge, Croft says, is recognizing that false positives may exist despite a signal meeting this criteria. What could be signs of extraterrestrial life may also just be a “weirdly shaped bit of a haystack,” he added.
“And so that's why we have to go back and look again and see if the signal still there. And with these particular examples that Peter found with his algorithm, the signal was not there when we pointed the telescope back again. And so we sort of can't say one way or another, is this genuine?”
Researchers have been searching the sky for technologically-generated signals since the 1960s, searching thousands of stars and galaxies for signs of intelligent life. The process is called “SETI,” or “the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”
But interference from our own radio signals has always proven to be a challenge. Croft says most pieces of technology have some kind of Bluetooth or wireless wave element that creates static, resulting in larger amounts of data needed to be collected.
“That's a challenge but also computing provides the solution,” he said.
“So the computing and particularly the machine-learning algorithms gives us the power to search through this big haystack, looking for the needle of an interesting signal.”
Ma said that while we may not have found a “technosignal” just yet, we shouldn’t give up. The next step would be to employ multiple kinds of search algorithms to find more and more signals to study.
Peter Ma is seen in this photograph taken in 2021. (Adar Kahiri)
While the “dream” is to find evidence of life, Ma says he is more focused on the scientific efforts of actively looking for it.
This sentiment is echoed by Croft, who said he is most fascinating in working towards answering the question of whether humans are alone in this universe.
“I don't show up to work every day, thinking I'm going to find aliens, but I do show up for work. So you know, I've got sort of some optimism.”
Toronto Top Stories
CTVNews.ca Top Stories
'Everything is interwoven': Trudeau and Biden vow continued Canada-U.S. collaboration during historic visit
U.S President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have announced updates on a number of cross-border issues, after a day of meetings on Parliament Hill.
Incredible photos show northern lights dancing across much of Canada
Sky-gazers and shutterbugs across much of Canada were treated to a spectacular display of northern lights Thursday night and into Friday morning.
Most Canadians believe speeding tickets should be tied to income: poll
A new survey conducted by Research Co. found that the majority of Canadians support tying speeding tickets to income, otherwise known as ‘progressive punishment.’
Trudeau says his kids 'no longer access' TikTok after Canadian government ban
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's teenage daughter and son, Ella-Grace and Xavier, 'no longer access TikTok,' the father of three told reporters during a joint press conference with U.S. President Joe Biden in Ottawa on March 24.
Ontario crypto king kidnapped, tortured in an attempt to get millions in ransom, documents say
Ontario’s self-described crypto king was allegedly abducted, tortured, and beaten for days as his kidnappers looked to solicit millions in ransom, his father told a court in December.
As it happened: U.S. President Joe Biden's trip to Canada
After a day of meetings on Parliament Hill, U.S President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced updates on various cross-border issues. CTVNews.ca breaks down Biden's first presidential visit to Canada, as it happened.
Canada’s Ivvavik National Park among most remote and beautiful places in the world: Big 7 Travel
Global travel site Big 7 Travel ranked the most remote and beautiful places in the world, and only one Canadians location—Ivvavik national park—is among them.
Eugene Levy, Sarah Polley, Jean Chretien, the two Michaels among guests at Biden gala dinner
Notable people will be in attendance at Friday’s gala dinner with U.S. President Joe Biden, hosted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, including former prime ministers and celebrities.
Sophie Gregoire Trudeau introduces Jill Biden to curling during Ottawa visit
The first lady of the United States got a sweeping introduction to Canadian sports culture in Ottawa Friday as Sophie Gregoire Trudeau took Jill Biden to the curling rink for her first trip to Ottawa.
Man in life-threatening condition after shooting in Pierrefonds-Roxboro: paramedics
A man in his 30s was sent to hospital in life-threatening condition after being shot in Pierrefonds-Roxboro Friday evening, paramedics say.
Airbnb to pull listings that don't have proper permits in Quebec
Short-term rental company Airbnb says it will pull listings that don't have a proper permit from the Quebec government. The San Francisco-based company made the announcement eight days after a fatal fire destroyed an Old Montreal building that housed illegal rentals.
Legault hails Canada-U.S. deal on Roxham Road 'a great victory'
Quebec Premier François Legault said he was 'happy' that Roxham Road will be 'closed' at midnight Friday as part of the agreement announced between Canada and the United States on asylum seekers.
Can this notorious London, Ont. intersection be made safer with a red light camera?
A new safety assessment of the Hamilton Road and Highbury Avenue intersection makes several recommendations to address the high number of collisions.
Cinder block thrown through window of south London restaurant
A London man was arrested early Friday morning after being spotted throwing a cinder block through the front door of a restaurant, according to police.
Byron barn battle takes another twist: volunteers vow to assist elderly man with hard labour
An elderly Byron man said he received numerous offers of help to clear away rotting barn rubble from his property, after a London, Ont. city council committee endorsed a recommendation to grant a demolition permit.
Fake ‘Catch the Ace’ tickets reportedly being sold in Hagersville
Organizers of the ‘Catch the Ace’ lottery in Hagersville are warning the public about fake tickets as the jackpot climbs closer to $2 million.
Northern lights put on a stunning show in southern Ontario
Southern Ontario got a show-stopping look at the northern lights Thursday and there may be a repeat performance this weekend.
Alleged death threats sent to regional chair, court documents show
A Kitchener man has been arrested by Waterloo regional police for making alleged death threats towards Region of Waterloo Chair Karen Redman.
Ontario's 2022 Sunshine List is out. Who was the top earner?
Ontario's so-called sunshine list is out and the three top paid public employees in the province are all at Ontario Power Generation.
Sudbury police charge OPP sergeant with criminal harassment
CTV News has learned an Ontario Provincial Police sergeant with 22 years of service has been charged in Sudbury with criminal harassment.
Ontario PC cabinet minister Merrilee Fullerton resigns
Merrilee Fullerton, a longtime cabinet minister in Doug Ford's government, unexpectedly resigned Friday, forcing the premier to name a new minister to the children, community and social services post.
Biden visits Ottawa: U.S. president wraps up two-day trip to Ottawa
Heavy security and sparse crowds gathered in downtown Ottawa for day two of U.S. President Joe Biden's whirlwind visit to the capital.
Here's a look at the highest paid public sector employees in Ottawa in 2022
Ottawa's former city manager, the top doctor and a deputy police chief were the highest paid public servants at Ottawa City Hall and Ottawa Police headquarters last year.
Fullerton resigns as MPP for Kanata-Carleton
Kanata-Carleton Progressive Conservative MPP Merrilee Fullerton announced on Twitter Friday afternoon that she had tendered her resignation to Premier Doug Ford.
Windsor-Essex brewers lament impact of looming 6.3% alcohol tax
On April 1, a 6.3 per cent federal excise tax goes into effect on beer, wine and spirits producers.
Windsor police officer demoted for ‘unnecessary’ arrest of two Black men
A Windsor police officer has been demoted for neglect of duty for the “unnecessary” arrest of two Black men.
Provincial funding boost in mental health services welcome news for Windsor-Essex health officials
Initial reaction to Ontario's 2023 budget indicates it’s being well received by pharmacists and mental health care officials in Windsor-Essex.
Barrie restaurants, bars brace for most significant alcohol tax jump in 40 years
Canada's restaurant industry is bracing for the biggest jump in the country's alcohol excise duty in more than 40 years, spurring warnings the tax hike could force some bars and restaurants out of business.
One of 7 men charged in Elnaz Hajtamiri case to be released from custody
One of the seven men charged in connection with the alleged frying pan assault and attempted abduction of Ontario woman Elnaz Hajtamiri weeks before her disappearance will be released from custody.
Barrie man at the centre of violent arrest sentenced for unrelated charges
Skyler Kent, the man violently arrested in downtown Barrie in 2021, pleaded guilty to multiple unrelated charges and one for threatening the arresting officer and was sentenced Friday.
EXCLUSIVE | Students hailed for aiding stabbed staff member; school principal and parents thank community
Two students are being recognized for their quick actions, and school administration and parents are thanking the community, after a difficult week at Charles P. Allen High School in Bedford, N.S.
Woman injured in west Saint John shooting, three suspects arrested
Police say a woman is in hospital following a shooting in west Saint John, N.B., early Friday morning and three suspects have been arrested.
Provinces compete to retain, recruit health-care workers
As competition for health-care workers heats up, so too does the bidding.
Calgary animator's latest short, MONSTR, streaming on HBO Max
Tank Standing Buffalo's MONSTR was one of eight animated shorts chosen from more than 1,200 submissions to be part of the HBO Max series Only You: An Animated Shorts Collection.
1 missing as 2 houses burn in afternoon fire in northwest Calgary
One person is missing and a dog is dead after two homes caught fire Friday afternoon in northwest Calgary.
Violent Calgary road rage: New photos released, persons of interest sought
Calgary police have released photos of a man and vehicle believed to be involved in a case of road rage last month that left the victim with substantial injuries.
'If it ain't broke, don't fix it': Proposed liquor in grocery stores pilot brings mixed reactions
There are mixed feelings in Manitoba about a proposed plan to expand liquor sales and put beer, wine and hard alcohol on the shelves of retailers like grocery stores.
'A sad thing that happens': Town of Arborg dealing with increase in stray cats
A town in Manitoba's Interlake area is trying to find new homes for stray cats that were dumped in the community.
Manitoba First Nation enforcing new measures to combat drug crisis
A Manitoba First Nation is enacting measures to combat an ongoing drug and addiction crisis while also calling on the federal and provincial governments to do more to address drug-related deaths within northern remote Indigenous communities.
'Fentanyl, it’s destroying everybody': Homeless crisis grows in Chilliwack
On the streets of Chilliwack, there are more homeless people than ever before, and some of them are barely teenagers.
Demand grows to ban octopus farms in Canada
Over 11,000 people have signed a petition demanding the Canadian government ban octopus farms from opening in the country.
'It was a whole dance of lights': Aurora borealis peeks through the clouds in Vancouver
Samuel Troya saw the northern lights over Vancouver once before, about a year and a half ago, but it was nothing like the spectacle he witnessed Friday morning.
Oilers ready to gear up for Pride night, say 'Hockey is for everyone'
Players with the Edmonton Oilers say they are committed to celebrating Pride on Saturday night when they take on the Vegas Golden Knights at Rogers Place.
Road closures for Edmonton police funeral procession announced
The procession is scheduled to leave the Alberta Legislature grounds toward Rogers Place at approximately 11:45 a.m.
'More concrete and parking': Critics concerned over Hawrelak Park trees after FOIP request
Members of Edmonton's River Valley Conservation Coalition board say a freedom of information request shows the city plans to remove trees in Hawrelak Park to make room for infrastructure during the controversial three-year rehabilitation project at the park.