IBM Watson launches a $5 million artifical intelligence X Prize

By Jonah Comstock

As the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize draws to a close, the X Prize Foundation has teamed up with IBM Watson to launch a new contest, a $5 million open challenge to develop an AI application that could be focused in the area of healthcare -- but could also be aimed at education, energy, environment, global development or exploration.

“In the coming decade, as X Prize strives to achieve its impact mission through incentive competitions and crowd-sourcing, we see tremendous opportunity in this emerging generation of problem solvers to use AI to solve humanity’s grandest challenges," Marcus Shingles, CEO of X Prize, said in a statement. "The IBM Watson AI X Prize is intended to promote and progress the notion of ‘AI for impact’ among the global bold innovator crowd, both the established community of practitioners, as well as encourage newcomers to experiment and ultimately demonstrate how AI can be used as a tool for good.”

Unlike previous X Prizes, including the Tricorder X Prize, in which companies are vying to develop a handheld medical scanner, and the original Ansari X Prize for suborbital flight, this contest allows the participants to define their own goals and to focus on solving different problems.

"Rather than set a single, universal goal for all teams, this competition allows teams to define their own challenges and demonstrate their solutions, encouraging myriad problem-solving approaches,” Amir Banifatemi, X Prize lead for the IBM Watson AI competition, said in a statement. “This more autonomous approach for running an incentive competition is new for X Prize, as we are always trying to innovate our model, and we are excited to have found a like-minded partner in the IBM Watson team."

Still there's reasons to believe at least some of the teams that enter this contest will focus on healthcare. It's the area where IBM itself chose to start focusing its Watson AI almost immediately after the platform first proved its worth on the popular gameshow Jeopardy!. And it was the first area on the list when the prize was announced.

The IBM Watson AI X Prize will be a long-lasting contest. Teams will have the opportunity to present on their progress once a year for three years, and the prize will finally conclude in 2020. The $5 million in prize money will be divided between a $3 million grand prize, a $1 million second place prize and a $500,000 third place prize, with the remaining $500,000 being reserved for special accomplishment and milestone prizes. The deadline to apply is December of this year, with detailed project proposals due in March.

Meanwhile, the Tricorder X Prize, which launched back in 2013, is on track to conclude in early 2017. It was originally meant to be awarded this year. Only seven finalists remain after two teams merged, one dropped out by choice, and one was forced to drop out when its prototype was held up in US customs.