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Russian billionaire patiently listens for alien sounds

Yuri Milner, who backed Facebook and Twitter, says his search for extraterrestrial life is in "listening mode."

Is there anybody out there? Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner will be listening. GONZALO FUENTES/Reuters/Corbis

Yuri Milner is a very good listener.

The Russian billionaire venture capitalist, whose investments include early bets on Facebook and Twitter, said Wednesday it might take years before he hears a peep from his latest project, a $100 million pledge to resuscitate a radio telescope search for extraterrestrial life.

Milner, who was speaking at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit, said the scientists he's backing at the UC Berkeley-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, more commonly referred to by the acronym SETI, aren't trying to contact alien life. Rather, they're just hoping to hear if it's out there at all.

"We're not sending any signals," Milner said. "We're just in a listening mode."

Milner, a long-time space buff, isn't the only Silicon Valley to turn his attention to the heavens. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg plans to beam internet access from space to remote parts of Africa. Elon Musk, the founder of electric car company Tesla and private space company SpaceX, wants to colonize Mars.

Milner, however, might be the first of the technorati to extend his ambitions beyond the solar system.

Milner's $100 million check, unveiled in July, will be used to revive SETI, which has struggled in recent years to fund its needle-in-a-haystack search. The donation will fund SETI for 10 years, allowing its scientists to rent two of the world's largest telescopes to survey roughly a billion stars in 100 galaxies beyond our own, the Milky Way.

"We're focusing on the bigger existential questions that are not funded by anyone else," said Milner.

Milner's obsession with space began early. He's named after Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human in space. Throughout his childhood, he was fascinated with the works of Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Astronomer Frank Drake, chairman emeritus of SETI, shared the stage with Milner. Drake been looking for little green men since the early 1960s. Though he hasn't found any, Drake remains optimistic.

"We're expecting friendly aliens," he said.