IBM and XPrize announced on Wednesday the launch of the IBM Watson A.I. XPrize, a $5 million challenge to use IBM’s artificial intelligence platform to apply A.I. in novel ways. They’re shooting for nothing less than solving humanity’s thorniest problems — climate change, medicine, and education, for instance — but there’s another, less tangible goal. Such a public display of A.I. affection, the challenge creators hope, will steer us away from the idea that all artificially intelligent roads lead to Skynet and robot apocalypse.
The evil A.I. narrative is one that XPrize founder Peter Diamandis describes as a tiring dystopian vision — but it doesn’t mean everyone else has given up on Ultron. There are plenty of reasons why people might take a dim view of artificial intelligence, be it Frankenstein complexes or uncanny valleys. Or Stephen Hawking arguing robots would beat us at our own evolutionary game.
Creating a super smart machine that nukes the Earth’s surface into a Trumpian-orange wasteland is, of course, a trope that imbues comics, movies, video games, and TV. Bombarded with visions of A.I. armageddon, it’s small wonder some of us raise our hackles at intelligent robots. A Monmouth University poll of a thousand Americans in April 2015 found that 72 percent of respondents believe A.I. will be bad economic news. And 16 percent are “very worried” about what an artificial intelligence could mean for the future of the human species.
But $5 million is apt to lure out some smart people with clever ideas. Will those A.I. creations be enough to make us forget about the Matrix? If previous XPrizes are any indication — the 2004 winner, SpaceShipOne, marked a major moment in private spaceflight — challenges that swing enough money around can shift paradigms.
And it’s not like these developments will be going on in secret: For the next four years, designers will compete at IBM’s annual conference, and the three that make it to 2020 will show off their projects in a triple-barreled blast of TED talks. It could be just the kind of event that gets people to shed their fear of intelligent machines and embrace a robot-filled future.