By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 30, 2009 - The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will take the Internet technology it helped create 40 years ago a step farther this weekend with a contest aimed at bringing people together to solve tough problems. And the agency has sweetened the "DARPA Network Challenge" with a $40,000 cash prize.
The competition kicks off Dec. 5 at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, when DARPA will display 10 8-foot, red weather balloons at undisclosed, publicly accessible sites around the continental United States. The balloons will remain at their locations throughout the day, until sunset.
The first person to identify the precise latitudes and longitudes of all 10 balloons will win the kitty.
Norman Whitaker, deputy director of DARPA's transformational convergence technology office, conceded that it would be nearly impossible for any one person to pinpoint every balloon within the designated timeframe. But if the competitors worked together as teams – using social networking forums made possible through the Internet – it is possible, he said.
"Nobody knows where the balloons are," Whitaker said. "But we will give people a little more than a week to contact their friends and talk to other people and scheme and plan and wheedle and deedle and figure out how they can get the information for the balloons they did not see themselves, and be the first to send the answers in to DARPA."
Whitaker admits that the challenge is "tough, really tough," but said he's optimistic that at least one contestant will be able to solve it.
How long that will take is anyone's guess. "If someone does it in the first five minutes, we are prepared to announce it right then," he said.
On the other hand, if no one has yet identified all 10 weather balloons after a week, DARPA is prepared to reward any contestant who pinpoints at least half of them. "If the most anybody got was five, we would consider that a win and award the prize," Whitaker said.
That's because DARPA's Network Challenge isn't out to identify the answers, but rather, how competitors arrive at them. "We are not interested in the balloons. We already know where those are," Whitaker said. "It's the techniques people use to solve the challenge we're focused on. We have people who are going to be actively watching from the sidelines to see how this plays out."
Contestants could employ several methods to entice supporters, Whitaker said. For example, he said, they could use a Web site to offer a portion of the prize money to anyone who contributes information about the balloons' locations. Contestants also could work with a charity, he continued, and donate winnings to its cause. Asking for help through Facebook, I-phone or other Web-based applications might also be feasible, he said.
The effort, he said, will give insight into the role the Internet and social networking can play in promoting team-building, collaboration and communication needed to solve broad, time-critical, real-life problems.
It's not yet known exactly how that information might be used, Whitaker said, but that's never been a roadblock for the Defense Department's high-tech research agency. "We're DARPA," he said. "We like to do things that are really out of the box."
That's how DARPA researchers approached their work 40 years ago, Whitaker said, by scratching their heads and wondering what benefit might come from hooking computers together to form the "ARPANet" – today's Internet.
Curiosity and imagination still serves to drive DARPA efforts, he said.
For example, DARPA started the Grand Challenge in 2004 to promote the development of autonomous robotic vehicle technology. Participating teams – many representing nontraditional sources of ideas and talent -- designed, built and remotely piloted unmanned ground vehicles that raced the clock while traversing rugged desert terrain.
Whitaker, who led the most recent Grand Challenge, said the DARPA Network Challenge will tap into the same fresh thinking that led to the Internet revolution.
"Future innovation depends on the upcoming generation of technologists who are discovering new, collaborative ways to approach problems that were not dreamt of 40 years ago," he said.
Registration for the DARPA Network Challenge opened last week, and details and application procedures are posted on the DARPA Web site.