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Crowdsourcing the 'most challenging puzzle ever'

Bored? Check out this brain-bending contest from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. You could solve it with help from an ambitious UCSD Web site.

These chads could win you some big bucks.

Love brainteasers? Brainiacs from a California university hope you can help decipher a mind-draining 10,000-piece puzzle through their collaborative Web site.

The DARPA Shredder Challenge aims to discover new ways the U.S. military can process and decode shredded documents confiscated in war zones, as well as test vulnerabilities in the shredding methods used by the U.S. national security community.

The Shredder Challenge is made up of five separate puzzles in which the number of documents, the documents' subject matter, and the shredding methods vary to present challenges of increasing difficulty. To complete each problem, participants must provide the answer to a puzzle embedded in the content of the reconstructed document.

Three out of the five puzzles are still available to be solved before the contest ends December 4 and DARPA awards $50,000 as the prize. Manuel Cebrian, a research scientist at the University of California at San Diego, and a team from UCSD have created a way to solve the remaining enigmas by "combining advanced computer vision methods with shared tasking and referral-based crowdsourcing," says the USCD Web site.

Cebrian was part of the winning team that solved the DARPA Network Challenge a couple of years back. It had participants trying to find 10 randomly dispersed red weather balloons across the country.

A shot from the UCSD puzzle-solving site for the DARPA Shredder Challenge. It is not as hard as it looks. Screenshot by Christopher MacManus/CNET

UCSD's Flash-based puzzle-solving page allows anyone to move around digital chads of paper from the puzzle and try to orient them correctly. Options are available to move the piece around, rotate it, or zoom in.

The UCSD team will "run crowdsourced partial solutions through advanced algorithms for clustering pieces and finding which pieces are likely to go together," which should make grouping and solving much easier for those wanting to try their luck.

"This is almost certainly the most challenging puzzle ever created," said Cebrian in a statement. "To complete this new challenge, it could take as many as 100,000 people."

If UCSD wins, then those who contributed could earn some cash, including one dollar for every edge connected. There are additional incentives for recruiting others. I am tempted to throw in a referral link in this story, but I will set aside my delusions of grandeur for now.