The successful completion of the Netflix Prize competition demonstrates that prizes are a viable mechanism for encouraging research in the computing fields, writes Harvey Mudd College professor Ran Libeskind-Hadas. In the broader computing community, the Clay Mathematics Institute now offers Millennium Prizes, which are awards of $1 million for solutions to each of seven famous open problems, such as whether P=NP. Researchers might not gear their work toward prizes, but one determined that a specific small (2 states and 3 symbols) Turing Machine is universal in 2007 to win a $25,000 prize sponsored by Wolfram Research. The history of prizes for technical innovation goes back to the early 18th century, when the British Parliament offered the Longitude Prize to encourage researchers to come with a practical method for determining a ship’s longitude. Libeskind-Hadas says the industry should consider whether certain issues could be incentivized by prizes, but also address the potential risks of such an approach to research.
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