NASA Taps into Geek Resources

The days of geeks existing on the margins of society are long gone; for many people they are the new studs of our time. Look no further than The Big Bang Theory television show to see how society is starting to view brains and not brawn as the key strength in this day and age. A big part of the trend towards all things geek is that the world is understanding more, and waking up to the concepts that geeks have always known were exciting. Massive multiplayer online games are better and easier to access than ever, and are much more mainstream than they once were.

While some areas remain a little too difficult for us to wrap our heads around the actual logistics, we can definitely see the cool factor that they boast! The High Performance Fast Computing Challenge that NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate recently ran is a good example of something we may not all understand in its entirety, but which we can definitely appreciate.

Unfortunately, this contest has had to be shelved because there were so many entries that NASA couldn’t cope with it on such a large scale, which also says a lot for how far the geek nation has come, but there are sure to be many more in the future.

Acknowledging Impressive Brain Power

Finally, in today’s day and age, the mental abilities of people who might have been deemed unpopular geeks in the past are getting the recognition they deserve. We’re realising exactly what they can do, and that the skills of hackers and programmers are actually pretty amazing. Can you imagine being able to rewrite a top class online casino’s code so that you’d always win, or so that the games would be superfast at all times? Probably not, but for many coders this is not such a stretch.

Harnessing Geek Brainpower

The talents of coders and programmers are used for everything from hacktivism to developing better educational apps, and detecting software bugs is a major area of interest too. Where we might want geeks to write that casino code, and they might be interested, they’re likely to want to detect and fix bugs even more. Companies, tech and otherwise, are tapping into the fact that geeks love a challenge and getting them to do a lot of the work for them.

Facebook’s Bug Bounty, which rewards private individuals who detect glitches in their software, is a good example of this. So is the High Performance Fast Computing Challenge, and similar future contests, run by NASA. Described as “the ultimate geek dream assignment” by Doug Rohn, head of NASA’s transformative aeronautics concepts programme, the High Performance Computing Challenge was focused on improving old software.

One of the many sophisticated computational tools that NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate uses when designing experimental aircraft is FUN3D, which is written in an old programming language known as Fortran. A lot of FUN3D improvements have been made over the years, but the software is still too slow for modern requirements such as complex geometry flows and calculations for flow separation. The challenge was for coders to provide proposals to improve the speed of FUN3D by up to 10,000 times, while not compromising the accuracy of the system in any way. The top 2 entries were to be awarded a joint sum of £42,000, or $55,000.  

Accessing Cheap Expertise and Finding New Talent at the Same Time

The contests that NASA and other organisations run allow them access to a huge think tank of budding coders, who want the cash prize and the bragging rights that their software is going to space or saved Facebook from crashing. This means they get to cast a much wider net and access a lot more resources than they would otherwise, and have a good chance of finding the next wave of coding talent. The situation is win-win for everyone involved.

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