The Napoleon Dynamite
problem is driving Len Bertoni crazy.
Bertoni is a 51-year-old "semiretired" computer scientist who lives an hour outside Pittsburgh. In the spring of 2007, his sister-in-law e-mailed him an intriguing bit of news: Netflix
, the Web-based DVD-rental company, was holding a contest to try to improve Cinematch
, its "recommendation engine." The prize: $1 million
Cinematch is the bit of software embedded in the Netflix Web site that analyzes each customer's movie-viewing habits and recommends other movies that the customer might enjoy.
Did you like the legal thriller The Firm
? Well, maybe you'd like Michael Clayton
. Or perhaps A Few Good Men
The Netflix Priz
e goes to anyone who can make Cinematch's predictions 10% more accurate. That sounds like an awfully big prize for such a small improvement. But, in fact, Netflix's founders have tried for years to improve Cinematch, with only incremental results, and they knew that a 10% bump would be a challenge for even the most deft programmer.
They also knew that getting to 10% would certainly be worth well in excess of $1 million to the company.
The competition was announced in October 2006, and no one has won yet, although 30,000 hackers worldwide are hard at work on the problem. Each day, teams submit their updated solutions to the Netflix Prize Web page, and Netflix instantly calculates how much better than Cinematch they are. (There's even a live "leader board"
ranking the top contestants.)
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