MIT Team Uses 4,600 Informants to Win DARPA Scavenger Hunt

By Andrew Moseman | December 7, 2009 12:49 pm

balloon_small-webHow long does it take to solve a nationwide scavenger hunt? If you’re a bunch of MIT whiz kids, just less than nine hours.

As DISCOVER covered last week, DARPA, the Defense Department’s mad scientists, devised a contest to study the spread of information with $40,000 of prize money for the winning team. The task was to be the first to find all 10 red balloons scattered at secret locations around the country and report them to the DARPA Web site.

More than 4,000 groups eventually registered to take part, but although the organisers had given players up to nine days to track the balloons down, the team from MIT scooped victory within nine hours of the launch [The Guardian]. MIT’s team members set up an elaborate web of incentives and information networks to solve the puzzle so quickly. $4,000 in prize money was assigned to each of the 10 balloons–$2,000 for the first person to see one, and slightly less for each person in the information chain who led that person to the MIT team.

In all, MIT received contributions from more than 4,600 people. “They got a huge amount of participation from shockingly little money,” said Peter Lee, a DARPA project manager who was one of the organizers of the Network Challenge [The New York Times]. Perhaps, though, the widespread help leading to swift victory shouldn’t be a shock: People do love scavenger hunts.

The team has yet to announce the exact details about how the operation found each balloon—or whether there was any friendly skulduggery afoot. “It’s a huge game theory simulation,” said 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 amassed the other nine locations, or disseminate false information to throw others off the trail [San Francisco Chronicle].

Related Content:
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Image: DARPA

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