Thursday, November 01, 2007

Competitions vs. Grants

a robot car from StanfordThe Economist has an article this week about robot cars, which have improved a lot in the past few years, largely (it seems) as a result of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) competitions, which set out conditions and then award large prizes to the best competitors.

I say "large," but of course a few million bucks would be miniscule for a robotic car research program, and wouldn't even be a lot of money for grants.

This improvement in “autonomous vehicle technology”, as the jargon has it, is partly a result of prodding by America's defence department, which hopes a third of its ground vehicles will be robotic by 2015. To that end its research arm, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has scaled back the traditional process of handing out large research grants and getting nothing useful in return. Instead, it has been running a series of grand prix for such vehicles. The prix in the latest, due to take place on November 3rd, is $3.5m—of which $2m will go to the vehicle best able to negotiate its way round Victorville, a former air force base in southern California, with $1m and $500,000 to those in second and third places.

Competing are university research teams (some of which have big-name sponsors because of success in past years), amateur enthusiasts, and even a corporation or two.

I really like this idea. It seems to motivate (financially and psychologically) all the right people, and you only have to reward people who succeed. Obviously the money to fund the research has to be out there to begin with, and it will never be fully compensated, but it's great to be able to harness existing money and motivation this way.

Plus, the resulting competitions are really fun to hear about.

1 comment:

Sally said...

I can't believe that The Economist re-spelled the name of an American agency to be consistent with their own strange ideas. In DARPA and the DoD more generally, it's "Defense," people. Isn't this a proper noun? Is it legit to screw with the spelling of proper nouns?

And as an ex-government worker, I certainly imagine that participants and bureaucrats don't mind bypassing the usual byzantine process of writing and approving grants. But robot car driving competitions - fun stuff.

I am somewhat surprised, however, that the prize money isn't even larger than what they report. I would have thought that the value of the grants this competition replaces would be larger than $3.5 mill.