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Dark-Sided DARPA Dangles $40k for Crowdsourced Balloon Hunt

DARPA balloons

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has long been shrouded in mists made of equal measures of awe, mystery, controversy, and spying. Now it's strolling out of those clouds, jauntily singing a 1980s pop ditty by Nena. 99 red balloons, floating in the summer sky

Er, 10 red balloons, actually.

DARPA's launching a public challenge on December 5, timed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Internet predecessor ARPANET. The agency is offering $40,000 to the first person who finds 10 red balloons hidden somewhere in the continental U.S., each one somewhere near a public roadway. Yup, that's ten tiny balloons in an area of 3.8 million square miles. Presuming you don't have personal access to a network of live-view spy satellites with incredible optical resolution and a supercomputer to crunch the data, to solve the puzzle you're going to have to take part in a seriously clever group effort.

Which is, of course, the point. DARPA's goal is to learn how groups of people using distributed computers work together in social networks to achieve a specific goal. The Agency expects to see different teams working differently, different team sizes, odd strategies like spreading false info to throw people off the trail and possibly even attempts to sell balloon location information on the Net. It'll help with research into terrorist activities, particularly how distributed groups work cohesively, along with a huge bunch of other useful data.

But wait a minute, back up a step. Did I just write that DARPA, an organization with operations at Above Top Secret at its core, an agency mentally linked with Area-51 and stealth bombers, is launching a global public challenge with a cash prize? Yes I did. And the reasons for this apparent cloak-and-dagger about-face are actually pretty intriguing, and can partly be attributed to DARPA itself.

It's all about crowdsourcing, you see—a technology that many other organizations are beginning to exploit. Back when DARPA was founded in 1958 after Sputnik's launch caught the U.S. napping, its operations were secretive mainly to prevent spy activities eroding the cutting-edge advances DARPA was supposed to generate. And there was no easy way for DARPA to sample the behaviors of millions of people in a semi-controlled way. The World has opened and changed in innumerable ways since then, but the Internet (sparked partly by ARPANET, of course) is perhaps the most socially and technologically transformative invention of modern history. It offers DARPA access to untold millions of willing scientific guinea pigs, each giving the Agency useful data on things never-before researched.

So, think about that when you trot along to the registration Web site and when you while away too many hours looking for red balloons when you're supposed to be working on Friday. I wonder if part of DARPA's experiment includes calculating the economic impact of millions of lost man-hours by distracted tech-workers?

[Via The New York Times]