Prize competitions for tough IT, high-tech problems all the rage

From problem space e-mail systems and voice recognition advances, crowdsourcing a challenge can save money too

Credit: White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Prize competitions backed by the government continue to grow with great success, according to a report by the White House Office of Science and Technology.

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It has been over six years that the government set the America Competes Act which in combination with has prompted more than 700 public-sector prize competitions that have doled out more than $80 million in prizes.

The Office of Science and Technology says prize competitions and challenges have an established record of spurring innovation in the private and philanthropic sectors letting the government:

  • Pay only for success and establish an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed;
  • Reach beyond the “usual suspects” to increase the number of solvers tackling a problem and to identify novel approaches, without bearing high levels of risk;
  • Bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear;
  • Increase cost-effectiveness to maximize the return on taxpayer dollars;
  • Establish clear success metrics and validation protocols that themselves become defining tools and standards for the subject industry or field.

According to the report: “The unique benefits and diverse outcomes of prizes have been well documented in the private, philanthropic, and public sectors. Early adopters in the public sector have seen the value of well-designed prizes over the last decade. For example, the Chief Technologist of NASA reports that ‘NASA recognizes the value of the public as a strategic partner in addressing some of the country’s most pressing challenges.

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“The agency is working to more effectively harness the expertise, ingenuity, and creativity of individual members of the public by enabling, accelerating, and scaling the use of open innovation approaches including prizes, challenges and crowdsourcing. These methods present an extraordinary opportunity to inspire the development of transformative solutions by offering a means to engage with non-traditional sources of innovative ideas, all in a remarkably cost-effective way.’”

The report noted a number of successful challenges including:

IARPA’s Automatic Speech Recognition in Reverberant Environments (ASpIRE) Challenge: ASpIRE challenged teams to apply and refine state-

of-the-art speech-to-text (STT) techniques to transcribe recordings of native speakers of American English. Typically, speech-recognition systems are trained on speech recorded in environments very similar to those in which they are expected to be used. The ASpIRE challenge tackled a more ambitious problem of building accurate systems for automatically transcribing speech recorded in noisy and reverberant environments without any training data that resembled the challenge’s final test conditions—and without knowing anything about the recording devices used, the placement of the talker relative to the recording device, or the acoustics of the rooms where the speech was recorded. Despite this ambitious goal, the winning solutions were significantly more accurate than IARPA’s baseline system. The four ASpIRE challenge winners developed systems that delivered 50% error reduction or greater compared to the IARPA baseline system. IARPA structured this prize competition so that prize payments would be made only if the desired performance requirements for the challenge were met or exceeded. Since the requirements were exceeded and the baseline significantly improved upon, IARPA considers the results to be quite successful for the cost.

NASA’s Disruption Tolerant Networking Challenge Series (DTN): The DTN Series is an ambitious, multi-year series of challenges to develop data networking protocols that can extend the Internet into the Solar System. The challenges helped improve the security, performance, and application of network protocols that can withstand the time delays caused by the immense distances between planets and the disruptions and non-contiguous paths of the space communication links. The series of challenges included two challenges in 2013, two challenges in 2014, and three challenges in 2015.The most significant challenge to close in 2015 was the Astronaut Email Challenge. This challenge aimed to fix an existing problem with the International Space Station (ISS) email system’s ability to handle large file attachments for astronauts by developing an architecture that uses the DTN protocols to solve the problem. The Astronaut Email challenge received 24 entries for 18 contests, and awarded 12 winners a total of $23,638. The Astronaut Email software will begin the process of flight certification for eventual use on the ISS. If this issue had been fixed in-house, NASA estimates it would have cost $193,000. In the challenge format, this challenge cost NASA about $81,000, 42% of the estimated in-house solution cost.

DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge: The recently completed DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge (CGC) utilized a series of competition events to test the abilities of a new generation of fully automated cyber

-defense systems. CGC teams created automated systems to compete against each other to evaluate software, test for vulnerabilities,

and generate and apply security patches to protected computers on a network. The competition drew teams of top experts from across a wide range of computer-security disciplines. Collectively, the automated systems participating in CGC were able to mitigate all currently known security flaws in the sample software (no individual system accomplished this). Competitors’ systems were able to identify 96 of the 131 security vulnerabilities (73%) in the software challenges without human assistance. The automated synthesis of input proofs and secure replacement software without human involvement demonstrated a groundbreaking level of autonomy. [Cyber-reasoning platform Mayhem from Carnegie Mellon University spin-out All Secure won the $2 million first prize in the completion completed this month.]

USAID’s Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge: The Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge sought out solutions to combat the challenges faced by

health care workers. These challenges include personal protective equipment (PPE), lack of adequate health centers, difficulty in tracking person-to-person transmission, the absence of rapid point-of-care diagnostics, and a need to accommodate traditional burial ceremonies involving direct contact with a deceased body. The purpose of USAID’s open ideation challenge was to engage a wide variety of creative thinkers with diverse expertise around the globe to rapidly source and develop potential solutions to this epidemic. The Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge sourced over 1,500 ideas and potential solutions.

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