DARPA Appeals to Public for New Software Debugger and Leverages Gamer Manpower

courtesy SXC

Who says gamers can’t use their hobby to contribute to the greater good? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has published a solicitation for a game-based program that will help DARPA scientists debug complicated, large scale software programs. While automated debugger tools like garbage collectors and hypervisors are nothing new, they’ve thus far been applied to packages that are relatively small, and the scale and complexity of programs ultimately destined for purposes like missile navigation is much higher.

Power in Numbers

The project is called the Crowd Sourced Formal Verification (CSFV) Program, and the end result will be a playable game with a series of outcomes that translate into feedback instructions for the original code. But wait… why don’t we just hire a crew of debuggers? Why create an extra step by building a game on top of the tedious job of debugging a software package?

The answer, simply put, is manpower. According to the released proposal request, the number of experts in formal software verification is capped at about 1000 for the entire country, and so their bandwidth only allows for checking the most crucial sections of software. By turning the task into a game, DARPA is expanding the scale of packages that can be scrubbed while keeping the job accessible to civilian gamers who are just looking for a way to kill time.

The proposal also estimates that there are as many as 1-5 bugs in every 1000 lines of code, so the number of different games that will need to be created to allow for solving all possible problems is “at least hundreds of thousands.” In other words, DARPA recognizes that to shake out all of the possible bugs and achieve maximum mission success in our defense endeavors, we’re going to need all the help we can get.

Future of Video Games

This isn’t the first time that gamers have been tapped to solve real-world problems: a team of researchers developed a game called Foldit, which allowed players to fold and rotate amino acids to make protein structures, awarding extra points for stability. After the program’s release, it only took a matter of a couple of weeks for users to create a crystalline structure match for the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, something that had eluded scientists for 15 years.

Jane McGonigal also posits in this video from Ted 2010 that gamers have the potential to change the world and solve real-life problems, if they’re only allowed to do what they do best.