DARPA Tasks Social Networkers To Find Balloons

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency likes to run contests for geeks. Previously they held a robot race in the desert. DARPA is interested now in social networking. The agency recently held a challenge mobilizing thousands of people worldwide to find out how people gather and report information using tools like Twitter. DARPA's Dr. Peter Lee talks to Ari Shapiro about the experiment to find balloons.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Here in the United States, an office of the Pentagon held an unusual contest earlier this month. Researchers wanted to see how thousands of people around the world could compete and collaborate to solve a problem that was too big for any one individual. The task was to find balloons scattered around the U.S. Competitors posted information and misinformation on Twitter and other social networking sites. Dr. Peter Lee is with DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which sponsored the contest.

Dr. LEE: On December 5, we, in 10 public but undisclosed locations in the continental U.S., hoisted big red eight-foot wide weather balloons, about 50 to 100 feet in the air. And we challenged the world to find them. And the first person to report the locations - latitude and longitude of all 10 - would win a $40,000 prize.

SHAPIRO: What was the point of this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LEE: There were several reasons we did this. I think the most fundamental is we wanted to create the conditions that would allow researchers to understand something more about how information flows on the Internet and on social networks. But we also wanted to create an adversarial situation.

SHAPIRO: How is this adversarial?

Dr. LEE: Well, we ended up having 4,367 teams, and in order to be the first, of course, you had to be smart and mobilize thousands of people to work for you to look for balloons, but another strategy would be to use misinformation, to spread false pictures and even hoist decoy balloons in order to throw your competitors off the track.

SHAPIRO: I understand there were widespread reports of a balloon in Providence, Rhode Island, and there was no such balloon.

Dr. LEE: That's correct. And we also have heard reports about decoys in Michigan and in other parts of the country.

SHAPIRO: So what did you learn about the way people work together or work against each other in a situation like this?

Dr. LEE: First of all, the top teams were able to mobilize incredibly quickly. Some teams were able to mobilize thousands of people in a day or just two days, which is amazing. And since there was so much misinformation, some teams were coping with thousands of false reports, they had to dispatch people in their team to go verify reports. And teams were reporting that they were able to get people on sight to validate balloon sighting in less than two hours, which is also quite amazing.

SHAPIRO: How long did it take the winning team from MIT to get all 10 balloon locations?

Dr. LEE: Just under nine hours. And if we could've made this a spectator sport somehow, it would've been fantastic, because it was a real nail-biter.

SHAPIRO: Did the winning strategy seem to be appeal to good will and a sense of cooperation, or be as devious as possible to undermine everyone else? Or pay people to help you? Or was it some combination of all three?

Dr. LEE: Amongst the, let's say, the top 10 finishers, all of the techniques that you've mentioned seem to be effective. The wining team from MIT used a combination of a payment scheme that not only rewarded you for finding a balloon, but for recruiting other people who might find balloons.

But they also had promised to give money to charity. But there are others who mobilized big social communities and explicitly tasked them with spreading misinformation to the competition.

SHAPIRO: Can you give me an example of a real-world scenario that might follow this kind of model?

Dr. LEE: Most fundamentally is the question of rapid mobilization. In case of a disaster, it can happen that you need, as quickly as possible, to find a dozen people who are able to operate heavy machinery and to find heavy machinery and mobilize that as quickly as possible. How do you do that? You also sometimes want to get the word out something is about to happen in a certain part of the world, and we want to communicate to people as quickly as possible and as strategically as possible. And so how do we do that?

SHAPIRO: You said this took about nine hours in total. Where were you during those nine hours? How did you watch this unfold?

Dr. LEE: I was actually part of a team that was manning the balloon in San Francisco at Union Square, and it was really a remarkable day for me and the team. You go into this thinking that these balloons are big, visible things. And so at seven in the morning, we hoisted this balloon maybe 100 feet in the air in the middle of Union Square. And I look up at this thing, and it looks tiny. And I remember thinking to myself at that moment: No one's going to find these balloons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Dr. Peter Lee is the head of something at DARPA you may not know exists called the Transformational Convergence Technology Office.

Thanks very much.

Dr. LEE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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