February 19, 2018

DARPA Pays MIT to Pay Someone Who Recruited Someone Who Recruited Someone Who Recruited Someone Who Found a Red Balloon

DARPA, the Defense Department’s research arm, recently sponsored a “Network Challenge” in which groups competed to find ten big red weather balloons that were positioned in public places around the U.S. The first team to discover where all the balloons were would win $40,000.

A team from MIT won, using a clever method of sharing the cash with volunteers. MIT let anyone join their team, and they paid money to the members who found balloons, as well as the people who recruited the balloon-finders, and the people who recruited the balloon-finder-finders. For example, if Alice recruited Bob, and Bob recruited Charlie, and Charlie recruited Diane, and Diane found a balloon, then Alice would get $250, Bob would get $500, Charlie would get $1000, and Diane would get $2000. Multi-level marketing meets treasure hunting! It’s the Amway of balloon-hunting!

On DARPA’s side, this was inspired by the famous Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge, in which teams built autonomous cars that had to drive themselves safely through a desert landscape and then a city.

The autonomous-car challenges have obvious value, both for the military and in ordinary civilian life. But it’s hard to say the same for the balloon-hunting challenge. Granted, the balloon-hunting prize was much smaller, but it’s still hard to avoid the impression that the balloon hunt was more of a publicity stunt than a spur to research. We already knew that the Internet lets people organize themselves into effective groups at a distance. We already knew that people like a scavenger hunt, especially if you offer significant cash prizes. And we already knew that you can pay Internet strangers to do jobs for you. But how are we going to apply what we learned in the balloon hunt?

The autonomous-car challenge has value because it asks the teams to build something that will eventually have practical use. Someday we will all have autonomous cars, and they will have major implications for our transportation infrastructure. The autonomous-car challenge helped to bring that day closer. But will the day ever come when all, or even many, of us will want to pay large teams of people to find things for us?

(There’s more to be said about the general approach of offering challenge prizes as an alternative to traditional research funding, but that’s a topic for another day.)


  1. I think their thought was that this was interesting not because you’d learn something specific from the winner – but that you’d learn something from the wide variety of approaches taken. (In retrospect, maybe there should have been separate prizes for teams that had the most people, fewest people, and best economics, too).

    Of course, DoD has been trying to apply these techniques in finding Bin Laden and LOTS of money hasn’t helped. (I guess finding inanimate objects is easier).

    • If Bin Laden were sitting in a public park in the U.S., I imagine that someone would notify the DoD pretty quickly. A financial reward wouldn’t be necessary.

  2. Ed – I thought the strategy was interesting as it showed a working, legal pyramid scheme – operated in reverse. I think the incentives created by the setup were unique and original, as far as these types of things go. MIT didn’t really pay a large team of people – they got a huge number of people to participate, but paid 40 people (or less, if there were extremely successful recruiters at the higher levels). The applications are pretty narrow, but I think there is a context in which this would work.

  3. I’m not convinced that anything about MIT’s reverse pyramid scheme helped them win. More likely is that MIT’s name-brand recognition combined with A LOT of media publicity drove a lot of tipsters to the MIT site. We’ll never know, of course, although it would be interesting if MIT and a few other successful teams like Army of Eyes and the geocacher’s 10Ballonies team would release some basic statistics about their tips.

    • That’s pretty relevant to DARPA’s mission. People would more likely listen to their own imam’s catch-bin-Laden scheme than the American one, due to public perception.

  4. one of the problems in the hunt for Bin Laden is the incomprehensible amount of money (US$25,000,000) for folks living on less than US$400 a year. chances are had they offered a couple goats or a camel for good info they would have gotten a lot farther

  5. As several commenter have noted the goal was not developing something physical, but it was an experiment to see how people will organize themselves to find something. The possible translation of this experiment into reality is: how can the DOD improve its ability to find Bin Laden? As Anonymous (One of the problems in the) pointed out ->”chances are had they offered a couple goats or a camel for good info they would have gotten a lot farther.”

  6. Nathan (not Nathen) says:

    As other posters mentioned, If the DoD’s intention was to come up with possible ways to find Bin Laden that might make sense for their scavenger hunt instead of something more “useful.”

    Call my post a bit flippant, but if the US really wanted to find Bin Laden we ought to be looking for the right Bin Laden. For over 10 years the FBI has been looking for “Usama Bin Laden” otherwise known as “Usama Bin Muhammad Bin Ladin, Shaykh Usama Bin Ladin, The Prince, The Emir, Abu Abdallah, Mujahid Shaykh, Hajj, The Director” (in connection with bombings of the United States Embassies).

    The entire rest of the world says the U.S. is looking for Osama Bin Laden in connection with 9/11 attacks on the World Trace Center in New York.

    I don’t know which is the right one, but if someone came looking for Nathen all my friends and relations and co-workers and anyone else that knows me would pretty much assume I wasn’t the Nathen they were looking for.

    Link to FBI’s most wanted page: http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/terrorists/terbinladen.htm.