IBM Watson Xprize is a chance to make AI more open, says prize team

Oh, and also win millions of dollars

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A $5m AI competition aimed at showing “how humans can collaborate with powerful AI technologies to tackle the world's grand challenges” has been launched by IBM Watson under the XPRIZE banner.

IBM Watson XPRIZE leader Amir Banifatemi hopes to repeat the successes of the previous XPRIZE, a separate competition, with AI.

“There has been a resurgence of AI in the past few years, and people tend to think of it as either being utopian or dystopian,” Banifatemi told The Register. “But it’s neither. AI is not an answer, but instead a very powerful foundational tool that can used for social benefit.”

The most famous XPRIZE awarded was the Ansari XPRIZE, which is credited with spurring development in low-cost spaceflight.

That $10m prize was awarded by XPRIZE trustees Anousheh Ansari and Amir Ansari for the best manned-spacecraft that could be reused and launched into space twice within two weeks. It was won by American aerospace engineer, Burt Rutan, who was financially backed by Microsoft co-founded, Paul Allen, for Rutan’s aircraft SpaceShipOne.

The licenses around SpaceShipOne was later bought by Richard Branson to create Virgin Galactic, to bring commercial spaceflight closer to reality.

The XPRIZE foundation is run by a board of trustees with a wide range of backgrounds and who have two things in common: a belief that technology can change the world and wads of cash.

It seems like technology companies working in AI think this too. Although a lot of attention in in AI is focused on completing tasks with super-human intelligence like Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo, companies are also using that same AI intelligence to do good deeds like boost healthcare.

Google DeepMind has its own healthcare team, DeepMind Health, that wants to support NHS clinicians by helping them diagnose eye diseases or cancerous tumours. Microsoft research labs have also announced it plans to ‘solve’ cancer with machine learning and natural language processing methods.

'Democratising AI'

Banifatemi welcomes the push of AI in healthcare, but says the prize is bigger than that. “It’s an open prize - it’s not limited to healthcare. There may be lots of ideas in healthcare, but maybe even some that will aid the environment, education or even gender equality.”

But perhaps more importantly, the $5m prize is also a chance to open up the field, something Banifatemi calls “democratising AI”.

“The power of AI should be open for everyone to use. Not just the biggest technology companies. The competition is a chance for anyone, whether it’s a team of academics, small start-ups, or a group of students that have identified an important problem that can be solved with AI.”

He hopes the competition will make AI more transparent and encourage people to share datasets more openly.

Data is vital to AI. In order to improve AI systems, the algorithms used in deep learning have to be honed during the training phase where the machine learns from input data. The more data is has, the better it can perform.

“Man and machine must collaborate more to make sense of life and intelligence around us. Decisions from that knowledge must be decided more democratically, which can only be done if more people have access to AI,” Banifatemi told The Register.

The IBM Watson XPRIZE is now open for applications until 1 December. Teams will have to register by paying the $1,500 entry fee, but this can be cheaper if the applicants are students, Banifatemi said.

By April 2017, judges will pick the best teams where they will have until 2020 to complete their finished product. Three finalists will be invited to TED2020 to present their work, and the winner will be announced.

It’s a serious competition spanning four years. The winning team will be awarded $3m, second place will receive $1m, and third place will get $500,000. The remaining $500,000 will be given in developing stage as Two Milestone Competition prizes to incentivise the teams during the competition, bringing the total of the IBM Watson XPRIZE to $5m. ®


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