Konrad Gomez-Haibach is only 15. But he’s vying, alongside more than two dozen college professors and science professionals, for a chance to help define the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) research agenda for the next decade through its 2026 Big Idea Machine competition.
His idea, an “open world” video game designed to build problem-solving skills and connect players with researchers using artificial intelligence (AI), is up against 32 other diverse projects that the Alexandria, Virginia–based group might fund. Gomez-Haibach, who lists his career goals as “future scientist, actor, and dog trainer,” was hesitant to submit a video game to NSF because, in his experience, “being called a gamer was not a compliment.” He estimates he spends 2 to 3 hours gaming online most days. His current favorite, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, centers on a mission to reconnect a family in a grim fantasy world.
Getting even 1% of the U.S gamer population below the age of 35 to play his game would yield roughly “1 million new participants in science,” says Gomez-Haibach, who lives in western Massachusetts and attends the online University of Nebraska High School. “It has the potential to help scientists figure out ideas to real-world problems much more easily due to human gamer creativity.”
The competition derives from the foundation’s 10 Big Ideas report unveiled in 2017 by Director France Córdova. Six focus on a sweeping, interdisciplinary research challenge—the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier, for example, or Navigating the New Arctic—into which NSF will be pouring hundreds of millions of dollars over several years, while four involve what the foundation calls “enabling ideas” that supports out-of-the-box ideas inspired by the public.
One of those ideas, NSF 2026, is a catch-all category designed as a vehicle for the public to propose topics that address challenges humanity will face far into the future. Its name is a nod to the year of the nation’s 250th birthday.
“[The public] is helping NSF do things in better ways and fill gaps where we think there are gaps in what we’re doing,” says Suzi Iacono, head of NSF’s office of integrative activities. “In the spirit of continuous improvement, we’re constantly thinking of how we can do better and be more inclusive.”
Another semifinalist, Scott Banta, a professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University, proposes a new way to create biofuels that mimics biological processes at the molecular level. Such processes waste much less energy than the current combustion of fossil fuels, Banta explains in his 5-minute video. But developing the new energy molecules and multistep processes needed will require “a tremendous amount of basic research in multiple disciplines,” he notes.
Banta decided to make the contest a family affair by asking his 12-year-old daughter, Zoe, to design visuals for his video. He also wanted to choose a topic that would connect his research in biological processes to the broader challenge of reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuels and ensuring a brighter future for his daughter.
Semifinalist Karishma Muthukumar, an 18-year-old studying cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, says she never expected her submission to get this far in the competition.
“I know a lot of other submissions were done by professors, by entire labs or entire departments,” Muthukumar says, “but I think my idea, [coming from someone] who doesn’t actually have a degree yet, will promote the idea that anyone can do science.”
Her entry focuses on promoting empathy-based AI and aims to dispel negative stereotypes of the technology in popular culture. She says working with individuals who have suffered brain injuries has taught her that “it’s really about infusing human values that could provide support and alter the perception and counteract the idea that AI is the enemy.” In her video, Muthukumar describes a hypothetical situation where a person driving home after a stressful day at work receives personalized support from an AI system that delivers uplifting messages.
“With the idea of artificial intelligence, there’s a growth mindset where we want to continually develop, develop, develop,” Muthukumar says. “It’s important to consider the consequences and consider what’s next before we even start.”
NSF received 801 entries from 49 states and Puerto Rico in response to its initial call last fall. An internal panel selected 33 semifinalists, who were invited to create short video presentations of their ideas. A panel of external experts will whittle them down further, leaving the final decision to NSF leadership.
The deadline for public comments is 26 June. NSF plans to announce the winners this fall at an award ceremony. Semifinalists will receive $1000, and as many as four will each receive $26,000 to further develop their ideas.