In the 1956 Oscar-winning short film “The Red Balloon,” it was the balloon that did all the chasing of a little French boy. This weekend, you can turn the tables on the helium-filled children’s playthings as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its Network Challenge — a race to be the first to find the locations of 10 red balloons somewhere in the continental U.S.
However, unlike the cable-friendly antics of a certain notorious Colorado family, this balloon chase is on the up-and-up. The winners get US$40,000 and the ability to help DARPA with its research into the effects of the Internet and social networks on group behavior.
The Challenge’s start date — Dec. 5 — marks the 40th anniversary of the first message sent across the ARPANET, a predecessor of the global Internet. DARPA is, of course, the Pentagon-related agency that first gave us that granddaddy of today’s Web.
“In the 40 years since this breakthrough, the Internet has become an integral part of society and the global economy,” said DARPA’s Regina E. Dugan. “The DARPA Network Challenge explores the unprecedented ability of the Internet to bring people together to solve tough problems.”
The balloons are the targets, and the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and other forms of communication and technology are the tools DARPA wants used to track them down. As stated on the DARPA Web site, the Network Challenge is “a competition that will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems.”
Nobody will have to get airborne to find the balloons. DARPA says they’ll be moored in easy-to-access locations, and the 8-feet-in-diameter weather balloons will be visible from nearby roads. They’ll be floated into their positions beginning at 10 a.m. EST Dec. 5 with DARPA representatives standing by to watch the fun, and they’ll remain in place until 4 p.m. local time. Contestants will have until noon EST Dec. 14 to provide the longitudes and latitudes of each balloon.
The Challenge is open to participants of all ages worldwide. DARPA is once again trying to harness the kind of innovative thinking that sparked previous challenges aimed at developing truly independent robot vehicles. In 2004, a Stanford team won $2 million by building a Volkswagen that was able to find its way through 100-plus miles of rugged terrain by itself.
An Empty Research Vessel?
The research might help with mobilizing large groups of people during emergencies, according to Phil Howard, associate professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. Otherwise, however, he’s a little worried that the DARPA Challenge could end up with little more than — wait for it — hot air.
“I understand the goal, but I’m not sure it’s going to be very revealing,” Howard told TechNewsWorld. “One of the things we know from social research is that the networks you see in social networking applications almost always follow existing face-to-face ties. It’s actually fairly rare that you find meaningful relationships that are only online. This project seems to be one about starting those online-only relationships.”
It’s possible that contestants with hundreds of Facebook friends could mobilize their networks and use the many pairs of eyes that come with them to hunt for the balloons. However, would they be scattered wide enough to cover the contiguous 48 states? Sooner or later, the contestants might have to depend on the kindness of strangers, along with some luck, to track down all the balloons.
In that respect, Howard sees parallels with separate experiments, also some 40 years apart. In the first, a Columbia University sociologist purposely sent letters to the wrong addresses to see who would reroute the mail to the right people. Recently, a University of Pennsylvania professor did the same thing with emails, trying to determine the altruistic nature of Americans who would forward the emails to the right address.
In each case, the studies were more concerned about social behaviors than the technologies involved in the experiments. With DARPA’s challenge, the winners may have to give up something valuable in return to a Pentagon-based agency, Howard said.
“That might be the interesting research question here,” he noted. “In a time of crisis, how do Americans use the Internet to solve a collective action problem? How would that test their networks? You might get some answers to that question if people were willing to surrender information about their social networks as the end of this game.”