Jul 20, 2015 ยท 8 minutes

“Let me ask you: What’s the biggest question?”

When Russian billionaire Yuri Milner asks you this question, it’s hard to know the answer he’s driving at. This was a man who valued Facebook in the double-digit billions when most people thought $1 billion was an unreachable price. This was a man who waltzed into Silicon Valley and started investing huge sums in private companies at unthinkable valuations with no meddling-- single handedly starting the trend still raging today of “private IPOs.” Then, when everyone else piled in on that game, he mostly shifted his attention to investing in China. He’s one of the most impactful forces of capital for how the Valley functions, but one of its most enigmatic figures.

“Um… what’s the meaning of life?” I try. My dad, after all, was a philosophy professor.

“Ok, what’s the second biggest question?”

“Are we alone in the universe?”

“This announcement is about that one. And in ten years we will find out.”

This morning, at the Royal Society in London with Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Frank Drake, Geoff Marcy, Pete Worden and Ann Druyan at his side, Milner is scheduled to announce to the world one of the most ambitious bets he’s made yet. He’s investing $100 million of his own money with the aim of answering conclusively whether there is life on other planets.

And if he doesn’t get the answer in ten years? “We’ll keep going another ten years until such time we conclude that we’re alone, which would be a pretty big deal. Or we will find a signal that we are not alone, which is also a big deal.” Unlike a lot of his commercial bets, Milner sees it as a no lose proposition. Either way, he’s confident, we’ll finally get an answer.

Called “The Breakthrough Initiatives,” and part of his existing “Breakthrough Prize” nonprofit, the plan has two components. The first-- launched today-- is billed as the most extensive search for life on other planets that’s ever been done. The press release boasts a program that’s 50 times more sensitive than previous programs, covering ten times more of the sky and scanning at least five times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster.

The second component will be an international competition to debate and craft potential messages to send to other civilizations, should we find them.

Why? “I’ve always been interested in answering the biggest question,” Milner says. “It may be the second one on your list, but it’s the first on my list. And the first on your list is the second on my list.” Of course, life on other planets is easier to solve than the “meaning of life.” But “easy” is a relative term.

When Milner and I spoke this past Friday, he explained that his $100 million will be used to hire a staff, develop software, contract with other established groups like SETI and to buy time on two of the most advanced telescopes in the world, the 100 Meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, USA and 64-metre diameter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

Milner’s timing-- along with his capital-- is good. NASA launched the Kepler Mission into space five years ago and it has sent back conclusive data that there are a few billion planets “like earth” in the Milky Way. By “like earth” they mean roughly the same size, in the habitable zone distance from a star, so temperature would enable liquid water. “We know now there are many billions of candidates,” he says. And that’s just in our galaxy.

In addition several international government funded telescopes are easier to rent time onthan ever before because government budgets have been shaky, and many are sitting idle.

And then there’s everyone’s favorite reason why the time is now to do something that could never be done before: Moore’s Law. “We can apply today’s computing power to all the searches done in the last ten to fifteen years, and it’ll make a big difference,” Milner says. In addition all the data the Breakthrough Initiative finds will be open sourced and put on an open platform for the rest of the scientific community and the general public.

“What we are going to do is look at one million nearby stars then look at the center of the galaxy, then look at 100 nearby galaxies,” he says. And then, in another ten years, if that isn’t enough, he’ll commit more money and keep looking.

“I have signed deals with the largest telescopes in the world, and it’s not an easy thing to do, but we did it,” he says. “Those telescopes will be connected to some of the smartest people in Silicon Valley who will analyze the data in a way that’s never happened before. We will do the search 100 times more efficient than any previous efforts. We will generate as much data in one day as any previous search has in a year.”

Milner doesn’t exactly have an expectation one way or another as to what he’ll find. His answer to the endless debate of “exceptionalism” (i.e. we are just the only planet that could sustain life-- lucky us!) versus the idea that the odds must be that somewhere else there’s something else sentient is to stop debating and just go find the answer.

Of course, that costs money. And there’s precious little money out there for this quest. Milner says the first searches were done in 1960 by Frank Drake, then in the ‘60s and ‘70s some government funding supported the effort. In the beginning of the 1990s, NASA stopped funding it and private donors came in. Many were then-giants of tech like William Hewlett and Dave Packard and Microsoft’s Paul Allen. But those pools of money dried up as well. “$100 million can go a long way,” Milner says. “This is science, not commerce.”

And clearly, at number 20 on Forbes’ billionaire list, Milner has got the cash to spend. He also has rich friends.

At a dinner at his Silicon Valley estate some months ago, he hosted a screening of a NOVA film about the results from the Kepler mission and a panel discussion from several of the folks in the film. I was there, along with the big names of Silicon Valley you’d expect to see at an event that combines money and technology. At one point someone talked about the millions (that’s single digit millions) it would cost to keep the search going. The room laughed and someone yelled out, “Why don’t you ask Yuri for a check?”

It’s clear now that conversation was long in the works. For the time being, it’s just Milner investing in this but he points out that’s how he started “the Breakthrough Prize”-- sometimes called the Oscars of science, which “aims to celebrate the best scientific work and also inspire the next generation of scientists.” Milner spearheaded that prize but later Sergey Brin, Jack Ma, and Mark Zuckerberg added their support. “If other people join I’ll be very happy,” he says. “If not, we’ll keep going alone. It’s our responsibility to keep looking for the answer to one of the biggest existential questions out there. We have the technology to do it now, so why not?”

That last point -- “We have the technology now so why not?”-- has essentially become the mantra of the modern Silicon Valley billionaire. Bill Gates aims to rid the earth of malaria. Dustin Moskovitz aims to eradicate poverty. Sergey Brin wants to cure death. Mark Zuckerberg wants to give Internet access to the entire planet. Pierre Omidyar wants to bring better living through capitalism to the developed world. Elon Musk wants to retire on Mars.

Milner asks me how I think the Valley will react to his plans. Despite his shrug that he’ll just “go it alone” when it comes to money, he’s taken great pains to make sure everyone sees he’s surrounded himself with the best scientific minds in this search. That he’s not just some crackpot looking for aliens. That he’s planned this and thought through what it’ll cost and how he’ll go about getting this answer.

I tell him there will likely be three reactions. The first is excitement from the “we were promised flying cars, and we got 140 characters” school of thought. The people who groan that too much Silicon Valley money goes to vapid technologies all about increased self-expression and ad algorithms and not enough truly world changing bets about changing our lives and exploring our world. They must be thrilled.

The second are those who’ve seen movies like Ex Machina a little too many times and worry that Silicon Valley billionaires have conquered capitalism so thoroughly that they now think they can use the same playbook to play God. This line of thinking usually ends with a reference to Skynet or the Cylons.

The third are somewhere in between. There might be a headshaking, “Man, Yuri Milner has too much money,” followed by a grudging respect that he could be spending it in worse places, and it is a question it’d be fascinating to have an answer to.

Either way, it’s deliciously fitting that Milner is using the money he made investing in social networks that have connected nearly everyone on Earth to try to find even more life for us to connect with.