The IBM Watson AI XPrize was announced earlier this summer (H/T TechCrunch). Teams have until December 1st to register (early bird deadline is October 15) for the four-year competition, which concludes at the April 2020 TED conference. The goal is a bit more open-ended compared to other XPrizes, in part to accommodate potential changes in AI technologies and capabilities. This explains the ‘wild card’ portion of the competition, where companies who did not submit at the beginning of the competition have the chance to develop proposals for consideration in later years.
Teams must develop a four-year plan for applying AI to a grand challenge, including milestones, testing processes, and overall solution. The plans must have some description of the anticipated AI technologies involved as well as how humans would work with these technologies in addressing the grand challenge. Each year, a team will submit a report and testing results. Should they wish to be considered for that year’s Milestone Awards (as defined in their plan), the team will need to apply for a spot at the annual IBM World of Watson. Of the (up to) 10 teams accepted, two will be recognized with Milestone Awards, and some teams will be eliminated from further consideration.
In the third year of the competition, the field will be reduced to three teams, and these teams will give a TED Talk at TED 2020 prior to the final prizes being awarded. Over the four years of competition, a total of $5 million will be awarded. Most of that will go to the three finalists ($3 million for first, $1 million for second and $500,000 for third) with the remainder distributed for Milestone prizes.
Again, teams have until December 1 to register, with competition ramping up early next year. The involvement of IBM Watson makes sense. Watson is the computer best known for competing on Jeopardy! a few years ago, but it has made strides in artificial intelligence since then, with IBM working to provide services for those seeking to process large amounts of unstructured data in ways that more closely resemble human thinking. While I don’t see any indication that IBM is looking to integrate Watson into the competition like Intel has incorporated its technology into some of its competitions, I wouldn’t rule it out.
On Monday the federal Chief Information Officer, Tony Scott, announced the release of the Federal Source Code policy. It covers custom source code developed by or for the Federal Government, and is intended to encourage its sharing and re-use by other government agencies. Additionally, at least 20 percent of this source code must be shared with the public, and the policy will encourage agencies to share more.
The policy is straightforward, and includes general guidance for agencies to determine when and how to develop custom source code. It also encourages the sharing of source code as open source software. This supports government transparency, and it also allows for improvement of the shared code through the collaborative ethos of the open source community. This isn’t the first time that the government is sharing source code, as federal agencies have been sharing code on Github for some time. This includes the new data.gov website, which will serve as a portal to custom federal source code and a resource for agencies working to comply with the policy.
Agencies have 90 days to develop a policy for complying with the Federal Source Code policy.
Again, UK readers should feel free to move along, as there’s likely nothing you haven’t already read on the latest cabinet postings.
New UK Prime Minister Theresa May continues to appoint members of Parliament to her cabinet. On Friday I noted the reorganization of the department formerly known as Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and the appointment of MP Greg Clark to head the new Department of Business, Energy, and Investment Strategy. Now we know the fate of the two ministers with responsibilities for science in the previous cabinet of former Prime Minister Cameron.
Jo Johnson has been reappointed to serve as Minister for Universities and Science. However, the universities portfolio has been shifted from the former BIS to the Department of Education. So Johnson will answer to two departments. That’s not unheard of for a junior minister, but apparently it is unusual. MP George Freeman, who had served as a minister for life sciences, was responsible to ministers at both BIS and the Department of Health. He is no longer, having been asked by the Prime Minister to head her policy board. I think this is an entity separate from the Number 10 Policy Unit, but I may be wrong on this point.
It is also worth noting that MP Nicola Blackwood has been named a minister in the Department of Health. As a result, she will have to step down as chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. Hopefully that means at most a pause in the inquiry that committee is conducting on the impact of leaving the European Union on U.K. science and technology.
Last month it was announced that a large helium reserve had been found in the African country of Tanzania. Long time readers of the blog may recall that helium management used to be a frequent topic, as the U.S. had legislated itself into a manufactured shortage of the gas. Helium is a critical element for its ability as a coolant, and the instability in prices and supply over the past several years have prompted some recycling and increased production.
The Tanzania fields were discovered through a new technique that may prove fruitful for further exploration. Extraction might start as early as 2017, but the volcanoes and disputes over land leases may complicate matters.
No word yet on how the Tanzanian find may influence the operation of the U.S. helium reserve, which is currently slated to close in 2021. It remains unclear, even with the dramatic rise in prices over the last 15 years, whether the market for helium has priced the gas at a value comparable to its scarcity. How this new field is developed, and whether or not helium exploration expands, can help answer that question.
With Theresa May now officially the U.K. Prime Minister, there have been changes to the government’s cabinet. This was certainly expected, but the part of this that I still haven’t gotten used to in parliamentary systems is how the departments can change along with whomever is appointed to head those departments.
Most notable of these changes is the reorganization (once again) of what was the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (where much of the science portfolio resided since 2009) to now include much of what was the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The new name is Department of Business, Energy and Investment Strategy. MP Greg Clark, who had served as Minister for Universities and Skills from 2014-2015, is the Minister in charge of the new department. I have seen no word yet about junior ministers in the department, including the fates of Cameron life sciences minister George Freeman and universities minister Jo Johnson. That information should come soon.
Here in the U.S. the Senate finally confirmed a new Librarian of Congress. Nominated in February, Dr. Carla Hayden has been the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore since 1993. She has also served as head of the American Library Association and is the first librarian to hold the job in decades. Based on Hayden’s work in modernizing the Baltimore library system, I would expect her to focus, at least in part, on doing the same for the Library of Congress. She will have a 10 year term (recently established in law) to work her magic.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met on May 20th in Washington, D.C. You can watch a webcast and/or review a transcript of the meeting online.
For the PCAST work updates, there was information on the ongoing PCAST forensic science study, the Council noted that there is an ongoing study on drinking water safety, which was the focus of the sole in-person public comment at this meeting.
The outside experts presenting at the panel talked about two potentially transformative subjects. One panel of federal employees spoke on near-Earth objects (NEOs), of which we need to monitor in the event of future close calls (or impacts). The other outside panel was on cryptocurrencies. While you might think that Bitcoin is the one and only digital currency secured by cryptography, it is not, and the presenters helped PCAST engage with what cryptocurrencies are and some of the policy issues that come with introducing a new kind of money into an existing monetary system.
Today the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) met in Washington, D.C., breaking its usual pattern of meeting on Fridays. As is customary, a webcast is available.
The public agenda was focused primarily on ongoing projects, with presentations on studies PCAST is conducting on forensics and biological defense. PCAST also heard from members of the National Academies Committee on Accessible and Affordable Health Care for Adults. PCAST issued a letter report on innovation in hearing technologies in late 2015, and the Academies released its report last month. As you might expect, the Academies’ report is longer, with more detailed research and recommendations than the PCAST letter report.
For once, there was some detail about the private session that PCAST (likely) held with the President. Per the Federal Register, PCAST was to meet with the President for an hour to discuss a report on “Action Needed to Protect Against Biological Attack.” The meeting was to be held in a secure location and the contents of that report may not be made public due to national defense or security interests. (Pardon the verb tense, as I’m not sure whether the scheduled meeting took place, and may never know given the security concerns.)
The next meeting of PCAST is likely in September. And yes, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted about the May meeting of PCAST. I will rectify that shortly.