IBM commits $240 million to fund an MIT A.I. lab

  • Researchers will focus their efforts on two fields: health care and cybersecurity
  • IBM's collaborations with MIT go back decades
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IBM on Wednesday said it will spend $240 million to open a Watson-branded artificial intelligence research lab in collaboration with a long-time partner, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

IBM has made larger financial commitments in the past. Still, the amount of money is notable in the world of AI research.

MIT is no stranger to that field: The university was home to one of the first AI labs and continues to be well regarded as a place to do work in the sector.

And MIT is also accustomed to working with IBM. In the 1950s Big Blue worked on a computer for an air defense system together with MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, and in the 1980s IBM Research and MIT were both part of a consortium on superconductivity.

The new deal, which will play out over a decade, is a reply to academic partnerships formed recently by other technology companies. In July Alphabet's DeepMind group committed to growing its AI research presence with the University of Alberta in Canada. Alphabet and Microsoft have also made announcements about gifts to fund research at McGill University and the University of Montreal — but the total of contributions between the two companies in Montreal falls below $10 million.

"AI as a field has been going on for many decades, but it is quite obvious right now it has raised to a level of centrality for every major technology company, including us and frankly every other business and area," Dario Gil, vice president of AI and Q (for quantum) at IBM Research, told CNBC.

The people in the new Watson AI lab will work at the MIT campus as well as IBM's Watson Health and Security facilities nearby. Researchers will develop algorithms, look for hardware optimizations — including with quantum computing chips — and explore the implications of AI in society.

With respect to industry applications, the researchers will specifically focus on cybersecurity and health care. Health care is an area where IBM has sought to commercialize its Watson "cognitive computing" software.

In health care, in particular, Watson has come under some scrutiny.

"The field of artificial intelligence, despite its progress, is in its infancy," Gil said.