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X Prize and IBM announce a $5 million artificial intelligence competition

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The X Prize Foundation and IBM have just announced a new global X Prize competition with a focus on artificial intelligence. Teams from around the world can take part in the "IBM Watson A.I. X Prize: A Cognitive Computing Competition," as it's being called, in hopes of taking home part of a $5 million purse to be awarded at the TED conference in 2020. Registration will open at the end of May.

In the early stages of AI development, opinions vary wildly on what it might be capable of, or what it will be useful for. That's especially true for the heads of some of the world's leading technology companies. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg thinks it would be best suited to turn his home into a smart house. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is afraid of it. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt thinks it can solve the world's "hard problems."

The new X Prize competition falls in this last camp. "For us it’s the possibility that we can cure cancer, that we can address climate change, the possibilities are wonderful and exciting and endless," says Stephanie Wander, an X Prize Development Associate and design lead for this competition. "That’s the stuff that sometimes gets a little lost when you go right to the Terminator."

The foundation wants to take on the world's biggest problems

The X Prize Foundation has been running competitions like this for 20 years now. The first — the Ansari X Prize — challenged teams to build spacecraft capable of taking passengers to suborbital space. The contest helped jump start the private space industry, and the winning design became the foundation for Richard Branson's commercial spaceflight operation, Virgin Galactic. Others aim to land rovers on the Moon, or explore the depths of the Earth's oceans.

But in past competitions, the X Prize Foundation typically laid out specific goals or requirements that had to be met. That's not the case this time around, because X Prize is allowing teams to define their own challenges.

"We have internally a working definition [of AI] that we are using, but that’s something that needs to be clearly outlined for teams," Wander says. (X Prize won't announce its own formal definition of the term until May.) With that in mind, teams will be essentially be "calling their own shot and then demonstrating their solutions," according to the announcement. The competition will end at the 2020 TED conference, where the winning team will be selected by a combination of judges and the audience.

Russell Brandom contributed reporting.