Amateurs' role in grand challenges, by Jack Hitt

Jack Hitt is the author of Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, and a contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and public radio’s This American Life. He wrote the following piece for Boing Boing.

NewImageThis week, war gamers in the Defense Department have devised an energy-based combat scenario and invited both experts and amateurs to fool around with ideas that will "reduce energy consumption, improve energy efficiency, and diversify its energy supply." So, once again, who's the latest crowd-sourcing enthusiast? The Pentagon.

Maybe other large institutions still mock the idea that crowd-sourcing is something you do to get kids to ride the subway in their underpants (or mock the idea that fossil fuels are peaking), but the Pentagon has been been one of the nation's leaders in turning to amateurs for help in solving intractable problems.

The Pentagon's Grand Challenge is eight years old, but it is arguably the first great amateur contest in this generation that popularized the idea. Rather than turn to the usual defense contractors in the private sector, the research arm of the Pentagon known as DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) created a robotic car race open to the public and with a large cash award. Since then the number of these contests has exploded (NASA has seven of them: The Centennial Challenges, all trying to tap into homebrew thinking to resolve issues around beam power, satellite launching, or moon regolith oxygen extraction in order to jumpstart further space exploration).

And so, most recently, the Pentagon married amateur zeal with online gaming. MMOWGLI (not a Jungle Book protagonist) is one of those notorious Pentagon's acronyms, this time for: Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet. The game was designed by Institute for the Future and built and run by the Naval Postgraduate School.

If you listen to talk radio, there is no energy problem out there. But at the extremely reality-based Pentagon, it's a matter of national security. "Every day that petroleum prices increase," said Cmdr. James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office, upon announcing the game, "that results in decreased combat capability, and that is something we simply cannot accept." The hope is that amateurs playing a game might be able to think around the obstacles that conventional wisdom pose to a smarter energy policy.

These pro/am online war games have been incredibly popular with the Pentagon. Last year, when war planners wanted to brainstorm new ideas for combatting piracy off the coast of Somolia, they inaugurated the first of the MMOWGLI contests. Who would expect a top naval commander to talk like Clay Shirky? "It sounds cliche but we are all sort of products of our own box -- the box within which we think," said Admiral Nevin P. Carr, Jr., "we want to leverage the wisdom of crowds." Nevins was explaining on MSNBC why they had to postpone the start of an online game for which they had budgeted space for a thousand players. "It was delayed," he said, "after getting 14,000."

If the Pentagon is now regularly turning to crowd-sourcing, indoor gamers, and backyard inventors, can we safely say that we are in the midst of an amateur revival?

It's fairly routine in this country to say that the amateur spirit is dead -- that it all represents a time that recently passed us by. But that hackneyed piece of conventional wisdom is practically the indication that the pendulum is swinging back. Maker faires thrive, while wet labs, nublabs, fab labs and DIY workshops pop up continually now. My own modest town of 125,000 in Connecticut now has its own Maker Haven, a DIY workshop where tinkerers can commingle, trade ideas and keep each other sane. (Camaraderie being key. Working alone in a garage is a great way to suddenly discover the logic of perpetual motion or cold fusion....

But there are other indications, too, that the amateur spirit is busting out of the garage. Patent applications are up (although, admittedly, a great deal of that surge may well be trolls looking for some easy corporate ransom). But more substantially, the modest spike in job creation, most recently in April, saw a increase of 119,000 jobs. How many of those come from the large companies, the Dow-traded firms now buttered up by our politicians and cable hosts as "job creators"? A mere 4,000 or 3 percent. But half of those jobs erupted from the bottom -- 58,000 came from small business and startups.

Actually it's more dramatic than even those numbers suggest. A Kaufman Foundation study in 2010 found that when factored out, startup companies alone are responsible for all the job growth in this country. Mature firms boast that they are involved in the rigors of real-world capitalism -- aka, creative destruction -- and it's true. At least as far as the destruction part goes. Kaufman's analysts studied a new dataset of job creation numbers known as BDS, the Business Dynamics Statistics. And here's the conclusion: "Put simply, this paper shows that without startups, there would be no net job growth in the U.S. economy."

Another marker one might want to consider as evidence of a returning cycle is the sudden emergence of weekend clubs. They have a rich tradition in America, amateur-wise. I had originally thought that it might be the DIYdrone movement. Now that police departments, companies and even college administrators have purchased industrial-class drones to keep an eye on their... clientele, the age old question of just who watches the watchdog already has a possible answer. This time, though, those multi-million-dollar drones might find themselves tailed by DIY rattletraps made from off the shelf Radio Shack parts.

It's actually the synthetic biology clubs popping up that might end up being the amateur pursuit that seizes government attention. Biohacking has already prompted, right on time, the predictable freak-out-from-the-establishment article in the New York Times.

If the bad old days of computer hacking are any historical clue, then look out. Remember, it was the fun-loving teenagers hacking into ATT to prank each other who got arrested (apparently the hackers stealing credit card numbers and committing crimes worth prosecuting weren't giving interviews to magazine writers). How easily would it be for an ambitious prosecutor to go after the low-hanging fruit of a DIYbio club after cable news hyped the image of some teen jekyll weaponizing Spanish flu in the den of his ranch-style home?

Historically, weekend clubs have indirectly served as ways to domesticate new techologies. A hundred years ago, kids rushed to join amateur radio clubs, later combustion engine clubs, and all the way up to remote control, homebrew computer, robotics and now synthetic biology. As in the past, the emerging synbio clubs are creating new rules of the road and standards of ethical practice for a science that will emerge one way or the other. Except now we live in a post-9/11 moment. How this story unfolds can be seen as a test of America's attitude toward breakthrough science at this particular time in our history. Will synbio emerge and even be celebrated as the latest version of a very cool 4H club? Or, instead, will it tumble into the cable TV panic machine where new technologies are terrorist plots and the cutting edge is a barricade?