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The Longitude Prize is back after 300 years
May 19, 2014 8:43 AM   Subscribe

To commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the original Longitude Prize (won by John Harrison with the invention of a clock that could keep time at sea), UK charity Nesta has launched a new £10million prize to encourage inventors and scientists to find a solution to one of six problems facing the world.

The proposed challenges are:

Food
Paralysis
Dementia
Flight
Antibiotics
Water

The BBC has more background on the challenges, and will broadcast a special episode of Horizon on 22 May after which a public vote will be held to determine which of the six will become the winning prize challenge. The Longitude Committee will then finalise the criteria for how to win the prize, and from September you will be able to submit your idea to win it.
posted by Jakey (22 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The proposed challenges are:

Food
Paralysis
Dementia
Flight
Antibiotics
Water
Internet Explorer

posted by Fizz at 8:45 AM on May 19 [9 favorites]


Actually, though Harrison solved the problem, and though he got a bunch of money (eventually), he never officially won the prize. No one ever won the prize.
posted by jeather at 8:56 AM on May 19


It's very interesting that these challenges are arguably all in regards to saving or restoring previous states and achievements, and thus "reactionary" in nature, as opposed to "progressive" goals of reaching a new state. Solving the problemof determining the longitude opened up a new world of possibilities; solving the problem of antibiotic resistance would "merely" save the status quo.
posted by tecg at 8:58 AM on May 19 [12 favorites]


Yeah I'm a bit disheartened that the dementia goal is "to develop intelligent, yet affordable technologies that revolutionises care for people with dementia enabling them to live truly independent lives."

I know thats a good thing but I'd rather shoot for "to isolate, treat and possibly even prevent the onset of dementia."
posted by vacapinta at 9:02 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]


Flight is progressive -- there was never a status quo where one could travel from London to Edinburgh (400 miles) in under an hour and a half with no environmental impact. But yeah, most of these are definitely "Solve a problem that we made ourselves." I'd also like to see more "cure" than "ameliorate" in Paralysis and Dementia, but I suspect that if someone did come up with a way to reverse either of those things, they would get the prize.
posted by Etrigan at 9:05 AM on May 19


They're willing to accept less than total victory over a complex situation, and that's a problem? The perfect really is the mortal enemy of Good then, isn't it.

Alright, new prize: demonstrate a method of producing energy that's over unity, and I will pay you $100 million. There, now you have a real goal to shoot for.
posted by aramaic at 9:17 AM on May 19 [4 favorites]


demonstrate a method of producing energy that's over unity

Burning oil.

Can I take my $100 million as an anuity, like lottery winnings?
posted by OnceUponATime at 9:22 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]


and thus "reactionary" in nature

The original prize was mostly reactionary in nature too. The British were tired of losing so many ships at sea because they couldn't figure out where they were. they could explore just fine with the technology they had before Harrison.
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:13 AM on May 19


vacapinta, I think it's safe to say that the latter is at least an order of magnitude higher in terms of difficulty. Even an immediate treatment or prevention breakthrough would take years, if not decades, to begin to change the situation.

Having been through (as some of you know) a year of direct caregiving with my father before his death, I think addressing the practical aspects of that, both in terms of the patient and the caregivers, is something that is achievable and can have immediate benefits.
posted by dhartung at 10:35 AM on May 19


I saw a really enlightening presentation by a Doctor sponsored by DuPont a couple of years ago. She talked about studying twins who had limited access to food. She found cases where one was healthy and the other was malnourished. They began to believe that the bacterial gut flora was allowing one twin to fully process the food (as much nutrients as possible were processed) and the other had minimal processing (signs of malnutrition, etc.). These twins had identical access to food and pretty identical home environments. Again, early stage research. The thought was that THE GUT BACTERIA was the key, not more food. Better processing of the food. Without going down some dystopian path, it seems like this thinking might be very important to human kind. Understanding and utilizing something that we already have, might provide a better life to millions if not billions of humans.

Thanks for posting this! I love it when there are challenges put forth to help humanity!
posted by zerobyproxy at 10:40 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]


It's bad enough that the poor already have to eat the shit of the well-off; much worse that it turns out that they should actually eat the shit of the well-off.
posted by Renoroc at 12:50 PM on May 19


I'd argue the dementia one is already solved. How about "persuading everyone to pay for good quality care"?
posted by welovelife at 12:55 PM on May 19


Yeah, these challenges aren't very good.

Too vague: Food, paralysis, dementia. The food challenge in particular is to "invent the next big food innovation" which will "demonstrate benefit at a small scale now" and "[scale] up to provide for millions of people".

Money sinks: Flight, antibiotics, paralysis, dementia. These challenges, especially flight, will cost more to solve than the prize. Ten million pounds might buy you half of a 737, and would fund a small pharmaceutical company (the type needed to have any chance of solving the 'antibiotics' challenge) for maybe a year.

Trying to solve political/economic problems with technology: Water, food. It seems every year there must be a dozen water purification/desalinization inventions by high schoolers or stanford undergrads that get a lot of press about how they're finally going to bring safe water to all those poor impoverished people in Africa. With all these filtered straws and solar stills and hand-cranked reverse osmosis gadgets, you would think that this problem ought to be thoroughly solved already. But the trouble is that this problem has never been about technology, but about infrastructure development, and coming up with the next best brita filter isn't going to magically build water treatment plants.
posted by Pyry at 1:02 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]


NESTA is a joke with no punchline.
posted by parmanparman at 1:27 PM on May 19


These challenges, especially flight, will cost more to solve than the prize.

The same was true of the X Prize, the DARPA Challenge, etc, and they were great successes.

Think of the real purpose of the prize money as to confer status to the challenge, and thus the grand prize for the winner; prestige.
The world needs more grand adventures like this.
posted by anonymisc at 1:36 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]


I don't find these challenges particularly inspiring, but on a planet with 7+ billion people on it, someone will be shaken out of their usual mode of thinking and do something great as a result.

Obviously, not everyone who tries will be successful. But if no one tries, no one will be successful.

I feel as though we have received too much inspiration from dystopian fiction over the last few decades. Instead of avoiding dystopia, we are steering straight towards it. We need more positive goals, otherwise we will naturally spiral down the black hole of our own collective self-doubt.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:54 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


If they wanted to actually do good they could give out that money in grants right now. Making it be a prize is a way for them to have their publicity cake without paying for it.
posted by Pyry at 2:15 PM on May 19


If they wanted to actually do good they could give out that money in grants right now. Making it be a prize is a way for them to have their publicity cake without paying for it.

As you've already pointed out, the money wouldn't be enough to solve these problems. But competition and prizes and and prestige are plenty of motivation for plenty of people. And once people start working on something it captures the imagination of other people.

The problem with a grant would be that you'd have to figure out who is most likely to make the goal happen, give them a pile of money and hope they can do it. With a prize, you have a pile of money that wouldn't even fund one group making it happen and you can use motivate many groups to try to make it happen. Yeah, those groups will have to get their funding elsewhere (so nobody's saying there's no role for grants) but if this gets lots of people working on an important goal, then that's something worthwhile.

I'm not anti-grant -- in fact I'm pro-grant -- but I see a role for this kind of thing, too.

On goals, I would think the quick-bacteria test goal is probably most do-able (but I'm not a bacteriologist, chemist, or anything else, so what the hell do I know...I'm just thinking, hey we have pee sticks for pregnancy and glucose monitors for blood...why not something like that that finds bacteria?). Thinking about which would help the most people, the anti-biotics goal and flight goal are probably neck-and-neck
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:45 PM on May 19


How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?

Stop handing them out like bridgemix.

NESTA can me-mail me to arrange payment.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:04 PM on May 19


Etrigan: "Flight is progressive -- there was never a status quo where one could travel from London to Edinburgh (400 miles) in under an hour and a half with no environmental impact. But yeah, most of these are definitely "Solve a problem that we made ourselves." I'd also like to see more "cure" than "ameliorate" in Paralysis and Dementia, but I suspect that if someone did come up with a way to reverse either of those things, they would get the prize."

It's not really all that progressive; you can make the 425 mile trip Paris-Marseille in 3h15 a dozen times a day - and that's city centre to city centre, arrive at the terminal 10 minutes before your trip, and not landing 10 miles from the centre of Edinburgh and having to shlep into town. "Near zero carbon" as they say, although not zero uranium. Journeys in the 400 mile range between large cities are completely competitive with air using existing high speed rail technology -- hell, using 40 year old HSR technology. The challenge is the trip from London to New York (or New York to Los Angeles); although, to be fair, short range green aviation is likely to be possible well before long range and may be a useful starting point.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:07 AM on May 20


Well, it would be more progressive in the US, where politics and land issues and citizen apathy means we still don't have HSR and the projects currently in progress have serious issues. The problem is infrastructure building, not technology. We already have airports, so a cleaner source of air travel is a big win here. I'd love HSR but given the dismal progress on California's project I have little hope for it anymore.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:35 AM on May 20


The voting is now open at the Horizon site to those in the UK who have registered for a BBCiD, whatever that is. Or by SMS using the details at the Longitude prize site.
posted by Jakey at 7:11 AM on May 28


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