I’ve thought a good bit about contacting alien life. In my novel, Love in the Time of Caller ID, our hero protagonist creates a smartphone app for listening to and sharing music — but which secretly sends out a hidden message, floating into space, waiting to be heard. Every time a song is shared, the app sends out another digitized audio message in a bottle.

It will not surprise you to know that I read with interest that non-jailed Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is planning on spending at least $100 million to listen for extraterrestrial life.

The optimistic gambler responsible for this new effort is Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and investor who has made a fortune in Silicon Valley. Mr Milner has a background in physics and a longstanding interest in space. His parents named him after Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human to orbit the Earth in the year of his birth. In 2012 he helped found the Breakthrough prizes, awarded to researchers who have helped to answer big questions in biology, physics and maths. Convinced that the existence of extraterrestrial life is the biggest question of all, he has committed $100m over ten years to Breakthrough Listen. The field has seen big philanthropic donations before—most notably from Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft—but never on such a scale, and for such a long period.

Cool, right?

I also love that the project — from super-rich venture capitalist (THIS IS A TELL!) — is branded “Breakthrough Listen.”


Prediction: Listening is the next great frontier for the Internet.

Listening — not reading, not watching, not writing, not viewing — may ultimately become the most important function of the Internet.

No, I do not mean Soundcloud or podcasts, for example.

Rather, that the “Internet” will constantly be speaking to us — mostly because we benefit from this, though often because our every moment, and our every thought, and our current whereabouts and future actions are all to be monetized.

In my short story, Burn Your Dead, a man wakes up — in the future! — and discovers the new world is a radically different place. He is guided by his beacon, a tiny device inside his ear that plays music to help him sleep, tells him who people are, where he is, what food he should eat, what various objects are and what they do.

Thing is, the story is about God, resurrection, the fear of death, the stupid of the crowd. The beacon element is marginal. Except, now I wonder if, for our present world, the beacon — the Internet in our ear — is going to be profoundly altering.

No distracted staring into our iPhone. No douche move of glancing at our Apple Watch or wearing our Google Glass. The Internet beacon plays our favorite music, offers turn-by-turn directions, provides us with all the (Googled) background details of the person we are speaking with, gently reminds us to pick up the milk as we drive past the grocery store.

Are acoustics good enough for this? Is the form factor ready? I think so. Broadband coverage, Internet access, and computer processing are certainly capable enough to make this happen. The beacon would require GPS, as well, and that’s feasible. Millions already wear hearing aids, and billions of us have willingly accepted that our devices (e.g. iPhone) track us everywhere we go. We speak to Cortana or Siri or Alexa. Thus, even the cultural and social issues are likely to be minimal as more and more of us shove a Internet beacon inside our ear.

I think this could be huge — and hugely beneficial.

Apple makes all its money off high-margin screens. Google blew its budding hardware reputation on a pair of intrusive and unappealing glasses. Still, seems to me these two companies, if they are willing to venture beyond those areas they make all their money on, are best suited to give us the Internet beacon.

The past 20 years of the Internet have been almost entirely visually-optimized: PCs to smartphones to tablets to a watch face. We need to shift our thinking and shift the net’s emphasis from the eyes to the ears.