Sunday, March 23, 2014

Has NASA lost the plot?

I don't understand. The X-prize challenge has proved that if you put up a fund, it will attract the brightest as best. Google is challenging teams to build a lander to go back to the moon, for good. Nokia and Qualcomm are also challenging teams with other prizes.

I have been looking at how the private sector in Silicon Valley is stimulating innovation. It's partly by offering prizes to solve big problems. US$30 million on the table if you can build a moon explorer. US$10 million if you can build the medical tricorder. US$2 million if you can work out why the ocean is getting more acidic. Of course, you will be hard pressed to build a lunar lander for US$ 30 million, but prize winners seldom fail to find partners. Think of the prize as just the publicity budget. 

But you can see there is a wide variation in the quality of the teams entering these competitions. At least, judging by their opening pitch.  The US teams are much better prepared to explain what they are doing. For example, just compare the video from Team Splendo from the Netherlands with Team Scanadu from Mountain View in the race for the Tricorderprize. I'm afraid it is the difference between night and day. (Actually I thought Scanadu's video for Kickstarter was much better than any of the videos they have produced since). Evidence below.

So what's the point?

My point is actually linked to NASA. You can see that government agencies don't understand how to involve the public in the same way as the private sector. The comedy show "The Bugle" pointed out this week that you can win US$ 32,000 by answering 5 trivia questions on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. NASA has just announced perhaps the hardest challenge in a long time. They are asking citizen scientists to develop improved algorithms that can be used to identify asteroids. The winning solution must increase the detection sensitivity, minimize the number of false positives, ignore imperfections in the data, and run effectively on all NASA computer systems. And the reward?

According to the contest series website, NASA's Asteroid Data Hunter contest has a prize of US$35,000. No, not US$35 million. US$35,000. Reminds me of Austin Powers.
Last time I looked, NASA's annual budget is around US $18.4 billion, or about 35% of total spending on academic scientific research in the United States. And they only have US$35,000 over for a international challenge to prevent the next asteroid collision with this planet? NASA doesn't get it.

I was reminded about the excellent interview with Jerry Pournelle, who explains to Leo Laporte what went wrong with the US space program and what could have happened. Have at look at what Jerry says 7 minutes in to this video.

Compare the NASA challenge with the X-prize. No contest!

I took a look at the videos made by teams entering the Qualcomm Tricorder Xprize.  Xprize doesn't seem to attract the best entries in storytelling.

I thought this earlier video from Scanadu is much better.

So what don't I understand?
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