Incentive Competitions and the Challenge of Space Exploration

Article by Matthew S. Williams: “Bill Joy, the famed computer engineer who co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982, once said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” This has come to be known as “Joy’s Law” and is one of the inspirations for concepts such as “crowdsourcing”.

Increasingly, government agencies, research institutions, and private companies are looking to the power of the crowd to find solutions to problems. Challenges are created and prizes offered – that, in basic terms, is an “incentive competition.”

The basic idea of an incentive competition is pretty straightforward. When confronted with a particularly daunting problem, you appeal to the general public to provide possible solutions and offer a reward for the best one. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

But in fact, this concept flies in the face of conventional problem-solving, which is for companies to recruit people with knowledge and expertise and solve all problems in-house. This kind of thinking underlies most of our government and business models, but has some significant limitations….

Another benefit to crowdsourcing is the way it takes advantage of the exponential growth in human population in the past few centuries. Between 1650 and 1800, the global population doubled, to reach about 1 billion. It took another one-hundred and twenty years (1927) before it doubled again to reach 2 billion.

However, it only took fifty-seven years for the population to double again and reach 4 billion (1974), and just fifteen more for it to reach 6 billion. As of 2020, the global population has reached 7.8 billion, and the growth trend is expected to continue for some time.

This growth has paralleled another trend, the rapid development of new ideas in science and technology. Between 1650 and 2020, humanity has experienced multiple technological revolutions, in what is a comparatively very short space of time….(More)”.