The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency on Saturday set out to learn how quickly people could use online social networks to solve a problem of national scope.
The answer: eight hours and 56 minutes, at least when the problem involves $40,000 and a bunch of red balloons.
In DARPA's Network Challenge, tied to the 40th anniversary of the Internet, the Department of Defense's research arm placed 10 weather balloons in public places around the country. The first team to locate and submit the balloons' correct geographic coordinates would get the cash prize.
More than 4,000 teams participated. More than a few interesting things were revealed about the human psyche.
"It's a huge game theory simulation," says Norman Whitaker of DARPA's Transformational Convergence Technology Office. The only way to win the hunt was to find the location of every balloon, but a savvy participant would withhold his sighting until he'd found the other nine locations, or disseminate false information to throw others off the trail.
Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with offers to sell coordinates of alleged sightings. There was much excitement over the red balloon in Providence, R.I. But there was no red balloon in Providence — just a Photoshopped decoy circulated by a conniving player.
The winning team was led by Riley Crane, a postdoctoral research fellow at MIT's Media Lab. MIT's team set up an elaborate information-gathering pyramid. Each balloon was allotted $4,000. The first person to spot one would be awarded $2,000, while the people who referred them to the team would get smaller amounts based on where they fell on the information chain. Leftover money, after payment to spotters and their friends, will be donated to charity.
"On the science side, we're scratching the surface of this tremendous new system" of social networks, Crane said. "With this data set we have the potential to understand how to face — and exploit — the challenges that come with living in this interconnected world."