San Francisco team solves DARPA's shredder challenge

Friday - 12/2/2011, 7:46pm EST

Keith Walker, one of the wining team's members, on 'In Depth' with Francis Rose

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A small team based in San Francisco has claimed a $50,000 prize for successfully un-shredding a series of destroyed documents in a challenge set up by the Defense Department's research arm.

The team, which goes by the moniker "All Your Shreds Are Belong To U.S." solved the shredder challenge Friday, two days before the end of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contest.

To win, teams had to piece together the pieces of five shredded documents of increasing difficulty and answer questions DARPA posed about coded messages written on them. The final puzzle was made up of more than 6,000 individual paper shards.

Nearly 9,000 teams signed up to participate in the challenge, and many of the early solutions came from jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts who pieced the documents together manually. But that approach failed to solve the more difficult puzzles, DARPA said. To win, the San Francisco team used custom-coded computer vision algorithms to make sense of the paper shards and suggested to team members where they should go.

DARPA considers the challenge an early investigation into whether U.S. military members might one day be able to take the shredded documents they confiscate on the battlefield and turn them into useful intelligence. It also wanted to see whether U.S. secrets might be vulnerable to potential de-shredding projects by adversaries. The experiment, however, is highly controlled. Team members were working with only the shards of one document at a time, not the bins full of mixed shredded paper likely to be found in the real world.

More broadly though, DARPA is exploring ways to solve extremely complex problems, said Regina Dugan, the agency's director.

"The DARPA Shredder Challenge underscores the value of increasing the number and diversity of problem solvers," she said. "The varied methods used have potential implications for so-called 'wicked problems,' generally considered insolvable by conventional means, and offer the possibility of increased speed, agility and breadth in innovation."

Winning Shredder Submissions

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DARPA challenge unshreds destroyed documents