IBM dangles US$5 million prize for major breakthroughs using Watson

Three winners will be announced at the TED conference in 2020

IBM Watson appears on the Jeopardy quiz show Credit: IBM

IBM Watson appears on the Jeopardy quiz show Credit: IBM

IBM has been encouraging developers to build apps using its Watson artificial intelligence system, which it hopes will be a big moneymaker for the company in the future.

On Wednesday it kicked off its latest push, pledging US$5 million in prizes for whoever makes the biggest breakthroughs using Watson by 2020.

“We're inviting teams from around the world to develop and demonstrate how humans can collaborate with powerful cognitive A.I. technologies capable of solving some of the world's grand challenges,” the company said.

And by grand challenges, it’s thinking big — it lists past achievements like the moon landing, mapping the human genome, and addressing climate change. (That last one might still be up for grabs, by the way).

The contest is being launched Wednesday at the TED conference in Vancouver by Peter Diamandis, founder of XPrize, which is partnering with IBM on the project.

The winners will be announced at TED 2020 (assuming the event is still around then). Three winning teams will split $4.5 million of the prize money, an IBM spokeswoman said, meaning they could each pick up $1.5 million. The other $500,000 will help fund projects along the way. IBM is the one putting up all the cash.

Each year between now and 2020, teams will do battle at IBM's World of Watson conference, with the winners advancing to the next year. They'll be evaluated by "a panel of expert judges for technical validity and the audacity of their mission."

Watson began life as a giant server system that won the Jeopardy contest on TV back in 2011. It's now a distributed system that lives in the cloud, its various AI technologies -- like image recognition and language processing -- offered as services via programming interfaces.

IBM Watson APIs IBM/IDGNS

Some of the Watson services offered as APIs

Several companies have created apps that use the Watson APIs, but IBM apparently wants something far grander. The contest could give it a chance to rival some of the futuristic projects coming out of Google's X lab, now part of Alphabet, which is also trying to solve the world's big challenges.

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James Niccolai

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