The DARPA Challenge

December 10, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

Imagine you were given the task of finding the exact location of ten balloons. If successful, you could win a prize of $40,000. However, these balloons could be anywhere in the contiguous United States. How would you find them?

On Wednesday, December 2, Robin Young, host of WBUR’s Here & Now, covered an interesting competition called the DARPA Network Challenge, in which people around the world were invited to do just that: find ten moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at ten fixed locations in the continental United States. The first person or team to submit all ten correct locations, as GPS coordinates, would win $40,000.

So on Saturday, December 5, at least 50 teams and individuals competed against each other to find these red balloons. Ultimately, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appropriately named the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, found all ten balloons by 6:52:41 p.m., less than nine hours after the competition began at 10:00 a.m. The five-person team was made up of Riley Crane and Manuel Cebrian, both post-doctoral research fellows at MIT, and three students—Galen Pickard, Wei Pan, and Anmol Madan.

Though entertaining in its own right, the purpose of the DARPA challenge was not to find the locations of the red balloons. The challenge was a social networking experiment marking the 40th anniversary of the ARPANet, DARPA’s precursor to today’s Internet.

Using Internet applications such as Facebook, Twitter, personal websites, email, and text, and with the help of family and friends, teams were able “to explore how broad-scope problems can be tackled using social networking tools.” “The Challenge has captured the imagination of people around the world, is rich with scientific intrigue, and, we hope, is part of a growing ‘renaissance of wonder’ throughout the nation,” said DARPA director Dr. Regina E. Dugan in a recent press release.

Though many teams, such as Erica Briscoe’s team from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, utilized several tools in their strategy, the winning team from MIT relied mainly on its own website. Team leader Riley Crane said he built a website within two days that was designed to attract more and more followers as a way to create a chain effect. Members of the website could then send personalized invitations to friends to get them to sign up and participate as well.

As further incentive, the MIT website said that, if they won, the team would be giving all the prize money away to those people who helped to find each balloon. For each person who received a cash prize for finding or helping to find a balloon, the same amount would also be donated to a yet-unnamed charity.

DARPA hopes that its findings will serve to fuel innovation across a wide spectrum of applications. In an interview following the challenge, Crane said that his team was “in it to understand how to mobilize the vast resources of the human network, to face challenges and explore opportunities in living in such a connected society.”

He added that he thought some applications that might come out of this experiment would be using this technology to find missing children or “something along those lines where there’s an incentive for others to really participate and help out.”

This competition intrigued me, as a current and future Internet user, first by its unusual design, but also by its higher purposes and intentions. I believe I can see a future in this social networking technology that is not limited to “stalking” friends on Facebook or through Twitter. By virtually being connected to millions of people online, the potential for innovation in terms of communication seems endless. And considering communication is probably the most relied upon ability of humankind, the magnitude of potential impact is huge.

And I don’t believe that we would need to promise people upwards of $2,000 to get them to participate in furthering the technology. As Crane said:

“I think [the experiment] actually only works because there’s a benevolent or greater good…. The incentives were designed specifically so that people feel good about the fact that they’re participating, that maybe if they don’t solve it, that somehow they’re helping charity or helping science in the greater good.”

Sources include: DARPA Network Challenge, CNET News, InformationWeek