To celebrate the Internet’s 40th anniversary, DARPA, often referred to as the mad scientist wing of the Pentagon, will award a $40,000 prize to the first person or group to find all 10 of DARPA’s big red weather balloons.
But the contest is not all fun and games. DARPA is studying the participants to learn more about how large online groups share resources and compete using social networks. During the DARPA Network Challenge, each of the 10 red balloons will be placed in hidden but publicly accessible locations during the daylight hours of December 5. Would-be balloon hunters can start registering for the challenge on December 1, and have until December 14 to submit balloon locations to the contest website [Popular Science]. The agency has dropped a few vague clues, but they are mostly leaving it up to the balloon seekers to figure out how to conduct their search. DARPA will stand by and observe the contestants, collect data, and interview those involved about their search methods.
Today DARPA’s twitter feed reported that more than 300 people have signed up for the challenge. Peter Lee, a DARPA computer scientist and director of the contest, isn’t ready to make predictions about how the winning group will find all the balloons, but he said some groups are developing software applications. Dr. Lee said he also expected large teams of spotters and even the possibility that some groups might use subterfuge like disseminating false information. Other groups may try to pay for information, he said, noting that even during a brief experiment the agency ran with a balloon near its headquarters, information on the location was offered for sale on Craigslist [The New York Times]. While the balloons will be spread throughout the continental United States, anyone in the world can sign up to participate in the hunt.