MOONSHOTS

IBM wants to fund the next breakthrough in artificial intelligence with XPrize

Eight years ago, IBM researchers wanted to see if they could build a computer program that could beat humans at the game show Jeopardy. That project has since evolved into Watson, an AI program that IBM is working on with others to better diagnose cancer, help with taxes, and even make us new dinners. Now IBM is partnering with XPrize, the nonprofit that ran the competition to get the first privately funded spaceship off the ground, to encourage the next breakthroughs in artificial intelligence research.

IBM announced today (Feb. 17) a $5 million prize for developers attempting to solve some of the grand challenges of AI. Unlike other XPrize competitions, where the foundation outlines very specific goals that participants must achieve, IBM’s competition is letting developers define their own goals over the next four years, with the prize winner chosen in 2020. IBM said in a release that developers would be “effectively calling their shot and then demonstrating their solutions.”

David Kenny, the recently appointed head of Watson, is expected to discuss the prize on stage today at the TED conference in Vancouver. The final winners will be unveiled at the 2020 TED conference, but between now and then, teams will be weeded out by panels of judges at IBM’s own AI conference, the World of Watson. The top three teams will give talks at TED 2020, and the audience will then vote for the most impressive project.

IBM is not the first company to sponsor one of XPrize’s competitions, although it’ll be the first to have its winner decided by the TED audience. In 2011, the chip manufacturer Qualcomm sponsored the competition to build a working tricorder—the fictional non-invasive device from the Star Trek series that can diagnose any disease immediately—and in 2007, Google sponsored the competition to put the first privately funded robot on the Moon, which looks set to happen in 2017.

“I have seen first-hand some of the great work already being done with A.I. by the tens of thousands of developers already using the IBM Watson services,” Kenny said in a release. “In all cases, better insights and decisions are being made with A.I., bringing man and machine together. We are just out of the starting blocks with cognitive computing.”

In recent months, IBM has opened new Watson hubs in Silicon Valley and Boston as it looks to expand its cognitive computing business. It also recently purchased the Weather Company—which ran the Weather Channel—and seems set to integrate Watson into weather forecasting. IBM also recently bought Merge Healthcare, a medical imaging company, giving Watson the ability to better “see” the world around it. With each new acquisition, and each developer that plugs into IBM’s Watson APIs, the system becomes more useful. It’s safe to say that if developers take up IBM on its competition, the company will benefit from the press those successes might bring, as well as help IBM—which has had 15 consecutive quarters of slowing revenue—show that Watson is something companies should consider buying into. Whether developers actually want to call their own shots and enter the competition, however, remains to be seen.

Image by Atomic Taco on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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