back to article Competition crowdsources blisteringly-fast software

If you want a massive improvement in the software you use, the cheapest way to get it is to host a competition on TopCoder. That seems to be at least one of the discoveries made when a group of research biologists staged a competition on the MIT-operated site. A two-week contest with regular prizes of $US500 ended up costing …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All your IP rights are belong to...

    ... the competetion organisers in exchange for peanut prizes.

    Unless you had the foresight to take out a patent on algorithm you used to stop lazy people from exploiting your innovation.

    1. JDX Gold badge

      Re: All your IP rights are belong to...

      The entire point is that you're creating an algorithm for someone else to 'exploit'. If you don't like the terms, don't invest your time.

    2. Michael

      Re: All your IP rights are belong to...

      An algorithm can not be patented.

      Of course, solving a problem that potentially you could sell for thousands more may be considered stupid, but is does show you skills off and perhaps some of these people will be employed by the supposed market leaders to improve their software.

    3. David Pollard

      Re: All your IP rights are belong to... everyone

      As the Nature article notes, "The codes for the best-performing programs are now available for free download."

      1. JDX Gold badge

        Re: All your IP rights are belong to... everyone

        People compete on TC largely for the sheer fun of it. Most problems have no prizes at all so the potential of a prize (most members are not in the West) and some recognition are just juicy bonuses.

        This is proper all-night-coding-session-and-then-going-to-school nerdery, real stereotype stuff other coders here will no doubt identify with - I know I do (I used to compete but ran out of time).

  2. Joe 1

    The arrogance

    "...what they thought would be an impossible goal..."

    It never ceases to amaze me how arrogant scientists become. Simply because they are the expert in THEIR field, they automatically assume they're expert in every field.

    1. Richard Barnes

      Re: The arrogance

      Or what's almost as bad is that they assume they are merely competent in another field and fail to reach even those levels.

      The biggest example that springs to mind is the numbers of non-specialists who think they're competent in statistics when in reality all they can do is (mis)apply formulae and algorithms whose derivation they don't understand.

    2. AceRimmer

      Re: The arrogance

      The competition is proof that they thought that someone else could achieve what they admittedly failed to do

      You'll also notice that what you quoted is a quote from the original article, not a quote from the scientist. The original article continues with a real quote from the scientist:

      “This is a proof-of-concept demonstration that we can bring people together not only from different schools and different disciplines, but from entirely different economic sectors, to solve problems that are bigger than one person, department or institution,”

      1. Stumpy

        Re: The arrogance

        AceRimmer wrote: You'll also notice that what you quoted is a quote from the original article, not a quote from the scientist.

        Aww, c'mon, this is the Reg. Never let logic and fact get in the way of a good sensationalist whinge...

        1. AceRimmer

          Re: The arrogance

          Next you'll be telling me that I shouldn't base my opinions of minorities on the contents of The Daily Mail

          1. Stumpy

            Re: The arrogance

            You certainly shouldn't. Base them on the Grauniad instead. A much better class of sensationalist claptrap.

  3. jubtastic1
    Thumb Down

    Glad I don't work for the firm that developed the original software

    Bit embarrassing to have your 'can't be improved' algorithm bested by 97000%, for $500 of code.

    Where is the Alan Sugar 'You're Fired!" Icon?

    1. Michael

      Re: Glad I don't work for the firm that developed the original software

      No, I'd be quite happy if I was able to massively over charge because I didn't want to spend the time developing one algorithm.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Glad I don't work for the firm that developed the original software

      It wasn't a "firm" that developed the benchmark software (MegaBLAST). MegaBLAST is a variant of the standard BLAST algorithm, tuned for finding close matches for long sequences (as an alternative to running multiple BLAST searches). It's maintained by the NIH.

      The BLAST algorithm was published in 1990. Predictive-matching algorithms have evolved a bit in the nearly-a-quarter-fucking-century since then - thanks in no small part to BLAST, which was very influential. The constraints on computing resources are a little different, too.

      You might also try getting your facts right. Arnaout's custom solution, the other benchmark for the project, was already an order of magnitude faster than MegaBLAST; the best Topcoder solution improved that by another order of magnitude. That's certainly very good, but comparing Topcoder's result only with MegaBLAST is pure sensationalism. Also, the Topcoder project cost the team $6000, not $500. It doesn't matter if the final stage only cost $500 - the overall cost was $6000. So they got a 5x performance improvement for free, and then a 25x performance improvement on top of that for $6K. (I don't know where the "970 times faster" comes from - the case-study link above claims the overall reduction in wall-clock time was from 2000 seconds to "just over 16 seconds".)

      But, hey, why not post some idiotic, insulting comment about people you don't know and work you don't understand? This is the Reg, after all.

      Similarly, I have to wonder whether the folks posting about the commercial potential of this work have bothered to look at the algorithms used by the successful entrants. Were they novel, or were they just an application of algorithms already in the literature to a new domain? (I've looked for more detail but haven't found it yet, nor have I found the "codes ... available for free downloads" mentioned above. Though I haven't tried that hard, to be honest.)

      1. JDX Gold badge

        Re: Glad I don't work for the firm that developed the original software

        Generally, from having taken part in these contests before, they are designed so you can't just find an algorithm and use it. You can find ideas from certain areas of CS but then have to figure out how to use them. Algorithms designed in these contests tend to be HUGELY tied to the very specific way input data is provided... e.g. the random distribution used in generating test cases will affect the solutions posted.

        The top guys really are VERY smart.

      2. William Boyle

        Re: Glad I don't work for the firm that developed the original software

        I'd like to know just how big the search domain was - how many unique signatures (and how big they were) that had to be analyzed. Also, some information on the hardware they ran the solution on would be helpful.

  4. Nick De Plume

    or maybe contractors hire mediocre programmers

    hence the magnitude of performance difference.

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