By way of Slashdot, here is a paper from Newcastle University suggesting that big cash prizes can drive technological breakthroughs. Among successful examples of cash prizes driving innovation are the X-Prize Foundation’s fomenting of research into space rockets, space elevators, and moon landers. Other competitions have driven innovations from breakthroughs in designing intelligent cars that navigate complex terrains to the successful construction of a half-scale model of an X-Wing that can actually take down a half-scale model of the Death Star. In the same vein, the James Randy Educational Foundation has a standing one million dollar prize for anyone who can demonstrate, under "proper observing conditions", any paranormal or occult powers (restrictions may apply).
The notion that money can be a motivator is certainly an interesting one. I myself once wrote an article on software interoperability in order to win an XBOX 360, and can testify to the power of electronics as a motivator for great endeavors. Is it such a great leap from there to the idea that greenbacks can inspire similar feats of mental strength?
According to the synopsis for the article on cash prizes, the purpose of cash prizes is to drive "revolutionary" scientific breakthroughs, rather than typical scientific breakthroughs, for which the admiration of one’s peers is often sufficient compensation:
Given that revolutionary science is a high risk endeavor which usually fails; it is likely to thrive only when the incentives rewarding the rare instances of success are greater than for normal science. Therefore we would argue that it is insufficient for successful revolutionary scientists merely to get the usual rewards of prestigious professorships, respect from within the scientific profession, and a modestly high level of reasonably secure income. Something more is needed: lots of money.
The pluripotent possibilities boggle the mind. Here are some of my own humble suggestions for achievable scientific goals and the cash prizes, in today’s dollars, that should be assigned to them. Feel free to add your own prize suggestions in the comments.
- A mass-producible flying car — $2 million
- Pills that have the taste and nutritional qualities of real food — $3 million
- A rocket to Mars — $5 million
- A rocket to Saturn — $5.5 million
- A rocket to Pluto — $1 million
- Trained apes who will take over our menial tasks, freeing humans to live the good life — $5.5 million
- Flying monkeys — $6 million
- Disposable rocket packs (for daily commutes) – $6.5 million
- Successful cloning of great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Lincoln — $7.5 million
- Successful cloning of B, C and D-list thinkers like Suetonius, Duns Scotus, and Ayn Rand — $1.5 million
- Successful cloning of deceased pets — $2.5 million
- Universal cure for cancer — $10 million
- Teleportation devices — $11 million
- Time Travel — $13 million
- Worm Hole technology — $15 million
- Hyperspace engines — $25 million
- Mind-reading devices — $15 million
- Robot sex-slaves — YMMV
- Holodecks — $25 million
- A computer that can defeat all chess grand masters — $1 million
- Skynet — YMMV
- A self-aware computer intelligence that will defend us against ape-slave uprisings — $25 million
- Star Trek Replicators — $26 million
- A working lightsaber — $27 million
As the paper suggests, if we haven’t achieved any of these goals so far, it may be because we have yet to offer the right incentives.