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UCSD Team Working on 6,000 Piece Puzzle

Aired 11/23/11 on KPBS News.

UC San Diego researchers take on a challenge from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

— UC San Diego researchers are corralling the efforts of roughly 3,500 people in about 30 countries to solve what might be an impossible puzzle.

A screenshot of one of the puzzles a team of UC San Diego researchers has enlisted the help of nearly 3,500 people to solve.
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Above: A screenshot of one of the puzzles a team of UC San Diego researchers has enlisted the help of nearly 3,500 people to solve.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released its five-part Shredder Challenge in October. Each puzzle is a shredded document. Thousands of teams have worked to put the pieces back together. So far UCSD’s team is one of only five to solve the first four challenges. The competition ends Dec. 4 or when one team completes the final, 6,000 piece puzzle.

Exploring how to use crowd sourcing to solve complex problems could have real-world applications.

“We are determining the structure of proteins, the genome, the brain," said Manuel Cebrian, the computer science researcher leading the UCSD team. "And many of these techniques actually are photographs we take of these organisms but sometimes we don’t know where bits of the photograph go.”

Two years ago Cebrian headed a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that won another DARPA challenge that involved using social media to locate 10 red ballons released byt eh agency.

If the San Diego team wins the $50,000 competition the prize will be divided among their thousands of participants based on how many pieces each person put together.

Some of the team's progress was undone by hackers who entered their crowd sourcing site where participants can manipulate puzzle pieces. Cebrian said figuring out to secure a site like theirs while keeping it open to new participants is one of the important problems that need to be solved before using systems like these to solve real-world problems.

Cebrian said none of the five leading teams has made any progress on the last and most challenging puzzle. If no one can solve it the competition prize will go to the team that has racked up the most points for problems solved.

Anyone can join in on the UCSD team's efforts here.

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