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Sunday, August 23, 2009


A few days ago I blogged about the Saltire Prize being, so far as I knew, the only government sponsored X-Prize in the world. Well it turns out that the US Army put up $3 million of prizes & it worked:

"August 18, 2009: The U.S. Army's decades long effort to develop a practical autonomous UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) has succeeded. Earlier this month, two T2 vehicles equipped with sensors and control equipment, successfully passed realistic tests...

Two years ago, for the third time since 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense sponsored a race for robotic vehicles. For several decades, the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to build a robotic vehicle. But in early 2004, the Department of Defense decided to try something different, and give enterprising civilian organizations a chance to show what they could do. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) held the DARPA Grand Challenge. Put simply, the first robotic vehicle (moving completely under software control, with no human intervention) that could complete a 240 kilometer course, would get a million dollars for its designers. No one even came close. But a second Challenge, held in late 2005, yielded several finishers, and the first one picked up the million dollar prize for navigating a 212 kilometers cross country course in just under seven hours. All vehicles operated under software control, as true robots. The third "Challenge" race was held in late 2007, and had a two million dollar prize for the first vehicle to complete a 60 kilometer course through an urban environment (an abandoned air force base) in under six hours...

The DARPA Challenge races have been a bonanza in terms of advancing the state of the art for robotic vehicles. For less than $10 million in prize money and expenses, the Department of Defense has created new technology that would have otherwise cost more than $100 million, and taken a lot longer to perfect."

I hope it was a lot less than $10 million in prizes & admin expenses since it was 3 million in prizes. The non-military spin off of having such driverless vehicles seems to me to likely to proportionately match the non-billiard ball spin off when a billiard ball company put up such a prize for a substitute for elephant ivory to make balls & wound up with celluloid, the first plastic.

However the principle that X-Prizes work, in this instance admitted to be something like 30 times better than conventional government funding, is even more valuable than that. I have still yet to hear anybody explaining why not - particularly when you remember that if nobody wins the prize, as happened the first year her, no payment is made.

I got this story via Jerry Pournelle eh says "I have never understood why prizes are not popular. They cost almost nothing -- perhaps a million a year total to fund a commission that determines if a prize should be awarded -- and you know the total to be paid. A ten billion prize for a Lunar Colony Prize (keep 31 Americans alive and well on the Moon for 3 years and one day) would either get us a Moon Base or it would cost nothing. A reusable space ship prize of 5 billion (send the same ship to orbit 13 times in one year) would again get us a space ship or would cost nothing. We spent more than half that on the X-33 fiasco." Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of Pournelle's Law - that the prime purpose of government spending is to pay government workers & their friends & X-Prizes are devoted almost entirely to the nominal but secondary purpose of achieving results.

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