February 21, 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.)