Ten Balloons, But Not One bin Laden?

Reaching out to the non-defense smart types in creative ways that inspire may benefit defense department researchers as well as those on the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “Network Challenge” was a nationwide game of “Where’s Waldo?” and nine of his friends. Participants were challenged to find 10 large, red balloons scattered in plain sight around the United States. The event marked the 40th anniversary of the ARPANet, the pre-cursor to today’s Internet. (Who knew?) It was designed to gauge how “broad-scope problems can be tackled using social networking tools.” The challenge looked at research issues such as mobilization, collaboration, and trust within diverse social networking constructs. Studies like the challenge “could serve to fuel innovation across a wide spectrum of applications,” something of tremendous interest to research-and-development leader DARPA.

The Network Challenges was not just a game— it was a civil mobilization with prize money. Forty thousand dollars would go to the first to identify the locations of all 10 balloons.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Red Balloon Team) took the top spot, finishing the task in less than 9 hours.

According to a pre-event posting by the MIT team, it planned to pay money not only to those who actually found the balloons, but to those who got others who got others to sign up for the team. Sounds like some social-networking Ponzi scheme, but, hey, that’s more data for Team DARPA. (Will network for cash?)

Recap: For $40,000, a group of students and their hastily assembled network nailed 10 balloons across the vast United States in under 9 hours. On the other side of the globe, the U.S. and its coalition partners have been unable to find Osama bin Laden after nearly a decade and unlimited resources. Granted, the Internet is a formidable tool, but social networking, albeit low-tech, is well-understood by Afghans and Pakistanis assisting bin Laden in his successful efforts eluding his Western pursuers. Cultural differences aside, one would think MIT’s success could be replicated in some form in the search for Mr. bin Laden in Afghanistan, Pakistan or France.


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