The power of searchers

darpa-red-balloon-challenge_large The Defense Department just sponsored a contest in which they randomly placed 10 large red balloons across the United States and challenged teams to find them all. The one who found all 10 first would get $40,000.

The National Department of Supervisory Agencies for Universal Surveys for Many Different Types of Objects took on the challenge from its massive Washington DC headquarters. It dispatched instructions by secure mail pouch Circular #10-A643 to its 135 regional offices, notifying them to add large red balloons to the Watch List in their multiyear project for surveying the entire United States for Many Different Types of Objects. When last we heard, the regional offices were contacting Washington headquarters for clarification as to what diameter balloon should be considered “large.”

The winning team, at the MIT Media Lab, found all 10 balloons in 8 hours and 56 minutes. They used decentralized search through the Internet, spreading the message through web sites and social networks that there would be cash rewards to any chain of people that resulted in a balloon find. In the end, they drew on the efforts  of 4,665 people.

As Dr. Riley Crane, the leader of the MIT group, explained:

If you heard about our Web site and went to sign up directly, and you found a balloon, you would get $2,000…. If instead you signed up and then you told your friends, and one of your friends found a balloon, that person would still get $2,000 because they found the balloon. And you, because you signed someone up who found the balloon, would also be rewarded with $1,000...

Wow, the Defense Department has just simulated an entrepreneurial economy! Entrepreneurs search for things that will pay off, or search for other people who will find things that pay off.

Searchers also work in aid, finding techniques or projects that work where you least expect to find them. That’s how aid found microcredit, conditional cash transfers, mobile banking, water purification tablets, nutritional supplements, oral rehydration therapy, and on and on.

The first and only time I met Bill Gates, he complained about my book “what is all this nebulous crap about searchers?” The funny thing about very successful Entrepreneurs is that not even they realize that they are part of a decentralized search network. They think it was all their brilliance – the equivalent of the 10 -- out of the 4,665  --who actually spotted the balloons thinking “we are so brilliant at balloon finding.”

Hat tip to the great searcher Michael Clemens, for drawing our attention to the story.