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IBM’s Watson AI software is best-known for winning at “Jeopardy!” in 2011. (Credit: IBM)

The latest multimillion-dollar tech challenge – known as the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE – will be aimed at encouraging collaboration between humans and artificial intelligence software to solve the world’s big problems. But it’s not yet clear who will sign up for the $5 million competition, in part because IBM’s Watson program is already one of the contestants in a much bigger, multibillion-dollar AI race.

Today’s announcement, made at the TED2016 conference in Vancouver, B.C., adds artificial intelligence to an XPRIZE list that also spotlights ocean discovery, moon exploration, carbon recycling, medical diagnostic devices, educational software and much, much more.

“Our hope is that the teams will show how we can apply AI to the world’s great challenges,” Stephanie Wander, who’s on the prize development team for California-based XPRIZE, told GeekWire. “That would be the cat’s meow.”

A lot of the details surrounding the competition still have to be worked out. The complete rules and guidelines are to be made available in mid-May, just before IBM’s World of Watson conference. Teams can already pre-register.

The contest concept calls for interim prizes to be awarded annually at the World of Watson developer meet-up, leading up to three finalist presentations at TED2020. XPRIZE says the winner will be chosen “based on the audacity of their mission and the awe-inspiring nature of the teams’ TED talks in 2020.”

Wander said IBM was looking into the options for giving teams access to the company’s Watson supercomputing platform, which made headlines in 2011 when it outdid human champions in a series of televised “Jeopardy!” trivia face-offs. Since then, IBM has been putting Watson to work on medical diagnostics, golf advice and other big-data applications.

She emphasized that the competition would be open to all comers, potentially including competitors in the AI field such as Google Deepmind, Facebook and Microsoft. “Wouldn’t that be a headline?” Wander said. “I think IBM would applaud anyone who did something incredible and amazing for humanity.”

However, some observers, including MIT Technology Review’s Tom Simonite, were skeptical:

When asked for his perspective via email, Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, sent back a quick response. “Tom said it best,” he wrote.

A huge amount of money already is going into AI research, thanks not only to the commercial investments but also to academic and non-commercial efforts such as the Allen Institute and the recently created $1 billion OpenAI Foundation. In 2014, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation awarded $5.7 million to seven AI researchers.

Last year, the Allen Institute set up its own Allen AI Science Challenge for software that could pass a multiple-choice science exam for eighth-graders. None of the software scored better than 59.3 percent, but the top three teams won awards even though their programs flunked. Israeli researcher Chai Linhart won the $50,000 first-place award, a team of developers from Luxembourg-based Trendiction / TalkWalker took the $20,000 second-place prize, and British engineer Alejandro Mosquera won $10,000 for his third-place finish. (Get the details here.)

The rapid progress in artificial intelligence – which could soon lead to quicker-witted virtual assistants, self-driving cars and dramatic social change – parallels the pace of development in genomics. The XPRIZE’s $10 million genome-sequencing challenge was canceled in 2013, seven years after it was announced, because the competition’s goal was “outpaced by innovation.” Could the AI XPRIZE meet with the same fate?

Wander acknowledged that AI research is “moving very quickly, and there’s a tremendous amount of investment happening.” Nevertheless, she said, the newly announced XPRIZE will provide an opportunity for out-of-the-box thinking and innovations undreamt of by IBM or the other giants of AI.

“This is really open,” Wander said. “It’s really about the best of the best of artificial intelligence.”

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