AI Discovers Fast Radio Bursts from Space

Data sorted by a machine learning program identified a location 300 million light years away from earth that has had repeated inexplicable light flashes that could be interpreted as alien generated.

Astronomers with the Breakthrough Listen project — a $100 million effort to hunt for signs of intelligent alien life — spotted 21 repeating light pulses called fast radio bursts (FRBs) emanating from the dwarf galaxy FRB 121102 within the span of an hour in 2017.

Some scientists think FRBs come from fast-rotating neutron stars, but their source has not been nailed down. And that explains Breakthrough Listen’s interest: It’s possible that the bursts are produced by intelligent extraterrestrials, perhaps to blast space-sailing craft through the cosmos at incredible speeds. (Breakthrough Listen’s sister project, Breakthrough Starshot, is developing a laser-based light-sailing system that aims to launch tiny probes toward alien solar systems in the next 30 years.)

The researchers, led by UC Berkeley doctoral student Gerry Zhang, trained an algorithm called a “convolutional neural network” to spot FRBs among the 400 terabytes of data. The strategy is similar to that employed by IT companies to optimize internet search results, Breakthrough Listen representatives said in a statement.  Zhang and his colleagues dug up an additional 72 light flashes, bringing the total number of FRBs detected on that day, from that single source (whatever it may be), to 93.

“Not all discoveries come from new observations,” Breakthrough Initiatives Executive Director Pete Worden said in the statement. (Breakthrough Listen is part of the larger Breakthrough Initiatives program, which also runs Breakthrough Starshot, Breakthrough Message and Breakthrough Watch.)

In an article for, author Mike Wahl writes about an exciting discovery that is only the beginning of space adventures using AI.