MIT Announces $240 Million IBM Watson AI Lab


IBM has fallen under increased scrutiny about the efficacy of its Watson AI platform for everything from delivering mixed results in the cancer ward to failing to deliver to the company’s bottom line. However, IBM shows no signs of retreating from its dogged pursuit to become the leading AI platform for addressing business problems. The latest move involves a “10-year, $240 million investment to create the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab.”

100 AI Scientists, Professors and Students To Pursue “Fundamental AI Research”

The lab’s focus will be “fundamental artificial intelligence (AI) research” according to today’s announcement and will support more than 100 AI scientists, professors and students. “IBM and MIT plan to issue a call for proposals to MIT researchers and IBM scientists to submit their ideas for joint research to push the boundaries in AI science and technology in several areas, including:

  • AI algorithms
  • Physics of AI
  • Application of AI to industries
  • Advancing shared prosperity through AI

Building on AI Track Records

Both MIT and IBM have long histories in AI. IBM was building expert systems in the 1980’s, then thought to be the most promising AI approach. The company more recently became known for Deep Blue and Watson, which was among the first cloud-based AI platforms. MIT has several other AI labs today including “the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Media Lab, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines, and the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.”

There are many gaps in fundamental AI research that the lab may be well positioned to address. Voicebot’s interview with Jeff Adams included some examples just in the voice segment, but that is only one sector of AI. The lab has a stated goal to develop and commercialize new AI technology and even launch new companies led by the researchers. This will no doubt make working at the lab more attractive to scientists that want to do research but have a goal of eventually starting a company around their inventions. Then again, it will also make AI researchers even more scarce than they are today.

Is $240 Million Enough to Make an Impact?

The final question is whether $240 million is enough to make a big impact in AI. Amazon’s expected 2,000 person staff devoted to Alexa must cost that much in a single year while this grant is over 10 years. Can $24 million per year over 10-years make an impact? MIT has other programs devoted to AI and IBM certainly has been said to be spending billions annually on Watson so this is not all either organization will spend. Innovation won’t be limited to this one lab. It is simply worth noting that the big ticket in the headline seems much more pedestrian when you consider how much is available each year.

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