Basement hackers and amateur mathematicians are competing to improve the program that Netflix uses to recommend DVDs — and to win $1 million in the process.
"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 Prize goes to anyone who can make Cinematch’s predictions 10 percent more accurate. One million dollars might sound like an awfully big prize for such a small improvement. But in fact, Netflix’s founders tried for years to improve Cinematch, with only incremental results, and they knew that a 10 percent bump would be a challenge for even the most deft programmer. They also knew that, as Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, told me recently, “getting to 10 percent 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, though 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.)
In March 2007, Bertoni decided he wanted to give it a crack. So…"
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