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US Spurs Plethora of Problem Solving Prizes 140

Posted by samzenpus
from the gaming-the-system dept.
coondoggie writes "Got a complicated problem? Hold a prize competition to solve it. That's the basic idea behind the America Competes Act, renewed by Congress this week. According to the White House's Office of Science and Technology, the Competes Act gives every department and agency the authority to conduct prize competitions. Prizes and challenges have an excellent track record of accelerating problem-solving by tapping America's top talent and best expertise."
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US Spurs Plethora of Problem Solving Prizes

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  • History repeated. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Prizes posted by royalty were used in previous centuries to solve things like finding longitude whilst navigating at sea.

  • and lowest expense (Score:4, Insightful)

    by vux984 (928602) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @08:27PM (#34647842)

    "Prizes and challenges have an excellent track record of accelerating problem-solving by tapping America's top talent and best expertise." ... and are cheap too because instead of paying people to solve it, you let a multitude of people do it in their free time, and then you pay the winner a set amount regardless of how long it took or what it actually cost. Everyone else gets nothing, regardless of how much time they spend, or what their expenses were.

    I'm surprised scientists get sucked into this stuff, its about as sensible as playing the lottery, and self-destructive to the viability of one's own profession.

    We're already seeing prize models for logo and website design...

    • by femto (459605) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @08:40PM (#34647924) Homepage

      A critical question is: Who owns the result? A prize should be about promoting development, and NOT about acquiring ownership. Any prize recipient who transfers ownership is a bunny. The sequence should be:

      1. Win prize (prize posted to promote development.)
      2. Use prize money as seed funding for business
      3. PROFIT! Prize giver has a solution and developer has money.

      The reward for the 2nd, 3rd, .. place getters is the opportunity to still develop a business, albeit without the benefit of the prize money as funding.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        I just asked the same question.

        And the answer is:
        "The Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;"

        Although that also means that Congress has the power not to do that...

        • The patent office also have the power to do it, and are a lot less capable of screwing you over.

          • by blair1q (305137)

            Er, not quite sure I follow. That line I quoted is from the Constitution and it is the one that allows the Congress to set up the Patent Office to that thing there with the writings and discoveries and authors and inventors and science and arts...

            I wonder if anyone ever challenged a copyright on the basis that the work of art it purported to protect was not "useful"...

            • I wonder if anyone ever challenged a copyright on the basis that the work of art it purported to protect was not "useful"...

              Unfortunately we're now bound by the Berne Convention [wikipedia.org] which pretty much explicitly states copyright is automatic, regardless of merit, and applies 50 years posthumously.

            • I thought you were quoting from the rules of this prize giving malarkey. I'm not American just in case you think I should have learned this stuff in school.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          The prize submitter owns the result, unless specifically stated otherwise.

          The crux of this policy is to limit the endless milking under a contract or grant with no or limited results. In other words, the trust in the grant review boards and contract award protocols has evaporated. Instead of paying for action, action, and more action that leads to nowhere, we pay for results.

          As the inventor/innovator/producer, you are still free, unless specifically stipulated by entering the competition, to protect and c

      • What if the solution to the problem has no direct business application?

        • by Grishnakh (216268)

          Then you should think carefully about that, and your chances of winning, before investing any time into attempting to win this prize (i.e., don't bother).

    • by drb226 (1938360) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @08:45PM (#34647956)

      I'm surprised scientists get sucked into this stuff, its about as sensible as playing the lottery, and self-destructive to the viability of one's own profession.

      Some people actually *enjoy* their profession, and do not need to be paid for *everything* they do (e.g. open source?). Plus, even if they don't win, they at least strengthen their portfolio and skills.

      • by vux984 (928602) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @08:50PM (#34647998)

        Some people actually *enjoy* their profession, and do not need to be paid for *everything* they do (e.g. open source?).

        So your argument is that people will compete for a cash prize because they aren't motivated by money?

        • by sea4ever (1628181)

          They may not be competing for the prize at all.

          Maybe they decided to participate because it's enjoyable to them. The prize is just a bonus that happens to be there. If there were no prize they would most probably still do it.

          This can happen, because people regularly participate in projects like this with no prize at all. (see open source projects) as a hobby.

          • by vux984 (928602)

            Maybe they decided to participate because it's enjoyable to them. The prize is just a bonus that happens to be there. If there were no prize they would most probably still do it.

            Of course. But then its a waste of money. There is no point in funding a prize to motivate people to do what they were going to do anyway. What exactly is the return on the prize? The same people who would have done it are still working on the problem.

            • by sea4ever (1628181)
              I think the prize usually works as a sort of PR by drawing attention to your company.

              I think maybe they do it as a kind of reward to have a clear conscience and also to make the competition a little more entertaining. (Prizes are not required but they do make it more worthwhile)

              So something like:
              'We need this problem solved. Lets crowd source it and start a competition. Throw in a prize to make us look good and to make it entertaining."

              Remember that people are not as rigid as machines, and that corpor
        • by apoc.famine (621563) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <enimaf.copa>> on Thursday December 23, 2010 @12:02AM (#34649190) Homepage Journal
          It's not necessarily a bad argument. I've seen plenty of college clubs/programs that would happily apply their chosen talent/focus to a problem. They would even budget/fund-raise to make sure they could successfully pull it off. Why? Personal pride, sense of purpose, but often, if there is a cash prize, there's a round of photographs, news articles, and coverage in magazines and other media forms dedicated to their personal niche.

          The money may not be the motivation, but if there's an oversized check for $50,000, you can bet that someone's going to take a picture or two and write about it somewhere. For a lot of groups, that exposure is worth far more than the cash. Although the cash might be seed money for the next venture they jump into.
        • And people compete for the Oscars even though they are not motivated by small hunks of metal

          • by vux984 (928602)

            Not really. They already act in movies professionally. If the oscars were discontinued would anyone really care? What would change?

        • Some people actually *enjoy* their profession, and do not need to be paid for *everything* they do (e.g. open source?).

          So your argument is that people will compete for a cash prize because they aren't motivated by money?

          More likely because they like to build things and to compete.

      • by Grishnakh (216268)

        Unless someone has a fat trust fund or something, or is retired, they still have to earn a paycheck to put food on their family's table and pay the rent/mortgage. So, how much time they can devote to what is essentially a hobby (even if it does intersect with their professional abilities) is usually limited. Contrary to myth, many, many open-source developers (and most of those working on big, important projects like the Linux kernel) are indeed working on these projects as their day job, for pay. Those

      • And some people actually *enjoy* their starvation, and do not need food for their children in exchange for *everything* they do . Plus, even if they don't win, they at least get to believe that they did something to better mankind while watching their children be eaten by the rich.

    • "Prizes and challenges have an excellent track record of accelerating problem-solving by tapping America's top talent and best expertise." ... and are cheap too because instead of paying people to solve it, you let a multitude of people do it in their free time, and then you pay the winner a set amount regardless of how long it took or what it actually cost. Everyone else gets nothing, regardless of how much time they spend, or what their expenses were.

      Well, that depends... There were prizes for various ae

      • by vux984 (928602)

        That's because you hold the mistaken belief that if you're not the winner, you didn't accomplish anything.

        Not at all. But if I don't win, then it had better have been worth it to me doing it anyway. And if it was worth me doing it anyway, then I'd have done it anyway. And if I'd have done it anyway, there doesn't need to be a prize to motivate me to do what I'd have done anyway.

        • That's because you hold the mistaken belief that if you're not the winner, you didn't accomplish anything.

          Not at all.

          Well, you sure go to great lengths to give the impression otherwise.

          But if I don't win, then it had better have been worth it to me doing it anyway. And if it was worth me doing it anyway, then I'd have done it anyway. And if I'd have done it anyway, there doesn't need to be a prize to motivate me to do what I'd have done anyway.

          In other words, if you don't win - you didn't accomplish

          • by vux984 (928602)

            In other words, if you don't win - you didn't accomplish anything, it's all about the tangible bottom line.

            Wow. No. Not even close. Precisely the opposite.

            If I don't win, then the rewards are the intangible benefits. (Satisfaction of doing it, enjoyment of doing, having learned from doing it, etc.)

            Odds are high that I won't win. After all, by definition, nearly all contestants lose. So the individual potential contestants rationally should not be expecting to win.

            If they don't expect to win, then they for

            • Plus we learn more from our failures than from our successes.

              When we don't try at all we learn nothing.

    • by wisty (1335733)

      I'm surprised scientists get sucked into this stuff, its about as sensible as playing the lottery, and self-destructive to the viability of one's own profession.

      Well, who else is going to pay a scientist to do public-good research?

      The only difference is that the grant money comes after results, not before.

      It would be good to have some information on what other teams are doing (or just who else is in the game), and a central clearing house where they can find less popular competitions, and maybe some analytics on the profitability of past attempts. But it's not all terrible. As long as people know the risks.

    • a lot of people play the lottery. great way to motivate science at a lower cost to the government.
  • Design and Implement a new 20-year Copyright, to be implemented retroactively.

    Prize will be access to an enormous amount of works of cultural significance (sorry, only 1990 and earlier).

  • It was pretty much inevitable that reward of government contracts would eventually devolve into hand-to-hand combat.

    Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutamus.

  • I'm sure having problem solving competitions accelerates the process of solving a particular problem, if for no other reason than drawing more attention and prestige to that problem. However, I'm curious if competitions really have an effect on the number of people who pursue careers in math, physics, etc. I mean does anyone really go "man, I'm going to become a mathematician and get rich through these competitions." I know people often go into the sciences for love rather than money, but I don't see how th
  • So I'm supposed to do a year's worth of work for a share of a dinette set instead of the $150K it should be paying me?

    • by physicsphairy (720718) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @09:12PM (#34648134) Homepage

      No you're supposed to do it for a share of a dinette set plus the personal satisfaction you get from solving problems and the prestige and recognition of being the guy who beat everyone else at doing it.

      Fyi, people actually pay for the opportunity to compete in triathlons, and most of them aren't even expecting to win. The ones who do don't receive much in the way of compensation for the time they've invested in it. And yet hundreds of people still show up to do it.

      If you're not in the spirit of the game then it may not seem very equitable to you, but good news! It's 100% voluntary, so no need for you to worry about it.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        No you're supposed to do it for a share of a dinette set plus the personal satisfaction you get from solving problems and the prestige and recognition of being the guy who beat everyone else at doing it.

        I get all that anyway, but I deserve $150K, not a fucking dinette set.

        Fyi, people actually pay for the opportunity to compete in triathlons, and most of them aren't even expecting to win. The ones who do don't receive much in the way of compensation for the time they've invested in it. And yet hundreds of people still show up to do it.

        That's nice for them. But the people who win make MILLIONS OF FUCKING DOLLARS doing it and rarely have to pay their own entry fee, besides.

        If you're not in the spirit of the game then it may not seem very equitable to you, but good news! It's 100% voluntary, so no need for you to worry about it.

        It's not 100% voluntary. The government is sucking the value of innovation out of the economy by paying in dinette sets instead of what it's worth.

      • Whether it's good or bad, it's not 100% voluntary if it's paid for with tax dollars.
  • by cinnamon colbert (732724) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @08:59PM (#34648068) Journal
    You have some data to back this up ?
    You have some real data to back this up, like some detailed comparison of 40 problems, with 20 solved by prize method and 20 solved by some other method ?
    I don't know if prizes are good or not; I know that argument by anecdote (x prize foundation....) is not a good substitute for thinking
    There is also a difference between a "solution" and a "solution" - it is easy to get something to work once for the prize committee; a lot harder to make it work many times, at a reasonable cost.
    • by Guspaz (556486)

      Don't think of them as anecdotes, think of them as case studies.

      Look at Netflix's contest. It seems to have been a big success. Netflix set a difficult goal in terms of improving on their recommendation algorithm. 41 thousand teams competed for the prize. Of those, over 5000 submitted valid entries, over 44 thousand in total. The teams published their progress and improved on each others' work. The winning team even published a variety of papers during the process. Eventually (three years later), the goal (

  • by Trip6 (1184883) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @09:12PM (#34648140)

    This is a classic example of this trend. Various government agencies spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars trying to get autonomous ground vehicles off the ground (so to speak). For under $50 million, DARPA conducted three events from 2004 - 2007 and spurred technology that is now being deployed in trucks, cars, boats, for 3-D mapping, and many other uses.

    They say that to improve your user interface design add a high score file. Everybody loves a competition!

    • by mbkennel (97636)

      Maybe those hundreds of millions of dollars to academic and government research institutions in robotics and machine learning had a wee bit to do with the success of the teams who entered the competitions.

    • by Animats (122034) on Thursday December 23, 2010 @01:59AM (#34649592) Homepage

      The DARPA Grand Challenge was actually Dr. Tony Tether's way of getting a message through to the academic robotics community - "get results or else". DARPA had been putting money into robotics work, and specific automatic driving work, at MIT, Stanford, and CMU since the 1960s, without getting anything that was close to useful. When the Grand Challenge was first announced, all three of those schools didn't intend to enter, and in fact, months into the competition, none of them had. Many non-academic entrants had signed up, but the big schools weren't in it.

      Then something happened. I gather that it was made clear to the major research groups that if the Grand Challenge resulted in better technology than what DARPA had received from academia, academic funding would be turned off. Suddenly, all three schools cranked up huge efforts, tying up a substantial fraction of their CS departments. Nobody had ever had 100-person crash programs in academic robotics before, let alone ones funded by the universities themselves.

      It worked. But it wasn't the carrot of winning that drove the major schools. The prize was only $1 million. It was the big stick of funding cuts.

  • Very cool. I wonder which Chinese Foreign Exchange Student will win?
  • by Jason Pollock (45537) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @10:15PM (#34648556) Homepage

    However, history teaches us that judges don't like innovative solutions to the problem.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longitude_prize [wikipedia.org]
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harrison [wikipedia.org]

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I don't get your point. Harrison had an innovative solution and got paid for work multiple times.

  • so heres an american science competition hosted by the defense department (who else has funding in america) and the rules are simple:

    1. no global warming...global warming is a theory, not a fact, and thusly we arent holding any competitions to fix something that may, or may not be occuring, according to american politic...er..scientists.

    2. no stem cells...we firmly believe life begins at arousal and will defend this conceptualized interaction of neurons to the death, or next midterm election, whicheve
  • by Anonymous Coward

    According to the story I've heard for years and years: Corporations create everything. Every good thing that ever came along, came from a corporation. Thats why they have patents and copyrights up the ying-yang. They have total control over every idea, and death to anyone who crosses them. The control is forever, and they have complete control over it. (Didn't you know?) So if the corporations are responsible for every good thing that ever came along, why do we need a prize for people to come up with

  • by gringer (252588) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 @11:52PM (#34649142)

    the Competes Act gives every department and agency the authority to conduct prize competitions

    Prize competitons, puzzles, solutions. It sounds a bit like innocentive [innocentive.com], which is a more global thing that has been running for the past 9 years.

  • Why this works (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Gorimek (61128) on Thursday December 23, 2010 @02:39AM (#34649700) Homepage

    There are a few options for a government or other large organization to get something important and difficult done.

    1. Assign the task to whatever part of your org chart this falls under. Uncountable billions and years later, you'll have a semi functional disappointment. NASA has proven this several times.

    2. Contract it out to a major company, picked in some bidding process. The results are slightly better than (1), but still very bad.

    3. Announce a prize of 1% of what you would have spent in (1), and you'll likely have a solution in 1/3 of the time.

    This is because with prizes, whoever is best suited to solve the problem, in the whole world, can do so without having to convince your bureaucrats of their ideas, and make a profit doing so.

    It's one of the very few effective ways to work around natural bureaucracy inertia.

  • by theNAM666 (179776) on Thursday December 23, 2010 @05:24AM (#34650176)

    What this is, is an excuse for government not to pay people for work. Prizes and challenges have an excellent track record of impoverishing America's top talent and best expertise, and making the next generation unable to afford to educate themselves to innovate.

    In short: fuck this; range your Congresscritter.

  • A modest proposal... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by theNAM666 (179776)

    "Got a credit problem? Sell your childrens' flesh to solve it. That's the basic idea behind the America Eats The Poor Act, renewed by Congress this week. According to the White House's Office of Poverty Elimination, the Eats Act gives every department and agency the authority to give poor people a small prize in exchange for each of their children that they fricazze or bake for the consumption pleasure of the rich. Eating poor children has an excellent track record of accelerating competitiveness and com

  • Would you say I have a plethora of puzzles?

  • Each contest is DEFINING problems, publishing their awareness of the issue, and looking for solutions. A few years of this, regardless of what the problem or prize is, will result in evolutionary improvements.

    Any organization that does this in good faith is worthy of my time and effort to help.

    (Unless they don't take this mandate seriously, and only post trivial problems and contests)

  • "Your challenge is to eliminate stupidity in America. Good luck."

C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas l'Informatique. -- Bosquet [on seeing the IBM 4341]

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