Big Names, Big Funding: Why Are MIT and IBM Joining Forces on AI Research?

Mit campus. photo:  f11photo/shutterstock

Mit campus. photo:  f11photo/shutterstock

Research partnerships between business and academia have been happening for decades, but we’re seeing a lot of them crop up these days due in part to struggles for funding, with AI in particular driving some serious dollars to universities.

The latest such agreement is between IBM and MIT, which recently announced a $240 million commitment from the company to support collaborative artificial intelligence research over the next decade. The move is one of, if not the biggest example to date of a tech company committing funds to academic AI research, in an effort to plant a stake in this booming field. 

Aside from the amount of the funding, there’s a number of notable aspects to the partnership. For one, there’s an emphasis on some under-explored areas of AI research, including taking a closer look at the hardware and materials making these powerful algorithms work, and the potential of quantum computing. A new lab, dubbed the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, is planning to use its proximity to Cambridge’s booming biotech sector to apply its work to other industries, such as healthcare. There’s also a priority to study the ethical and economic implications of AI, a growing concern.  

MIT is expecting to put 100 scientists, professors and students to work through the partnership, both at the Cambridge campus and nearby IBM offices, and MIT and IBM leaders will co-chair the project.

The initiative will support basic research and applications, but there’s a big emphasis on moving discoveries into commercial uses, a unsurprising theme in such partnerships given the explosive shifts happening in the tech industry around AI. While it’s not completely clear what will happen to the intellectual property that results, VentureBeat reports that the two parties will jointly own resulting intellectual property, with IBM having the option to use new developments in its products. The partners will encourage the creation of new startups, but IBM is certainly hoping MIT’s talent will amp up the company’s offerings in the highly competitive field. 

While very large, this is one of many examples emerging of companies sidling up to universities in an effort to make a mark in AI, maximizing profits and staying relevant in a fast-moving arena. When the product is mainly algorithms, the raw material is computer science talent, now in extremely high demand. 


Probably the most controversial example is Uber’s fraught relationship with Carnegie Mellon, which highlighted concerns about the tech industry siphoning away researchers from schools. Silicon Valley companies, not to mention major car companies, are devoting serious money to AI research in hopes of boosting their bottom lines. 

This is part of a larger trend of corporations backing university research through a range of mechanisms, which can boost academic research and translate discoveries into applications, but also sparks concerns about industry influence on campus.

In the case of the IBM-MIT partnership, the century-old tech company has been losing ground in the artificial intelligence race. Even as AI platform Watson drew headlines and conquered Jeopardy!, it has not been a big enough moneymaker for the company. STAT recently reported that Watson has disappointed in its cancer care applications. Meanwhile, the company’s revenues and stock value have been in decline

With this partnership, IBM is likely hoping it can breathe new life into its AI work by joining efforts with the deep well of talent at MIT—the kind of academic expertise that companies are hungry to secure right now. And by focusing in part on materials and hardware and not just algorithms, it’s betting on some deeper breakthroughs that others might be overlooking. 

MIT, on the other hand, is landing a lot of money in support of its campus-wide work in artificial intelligence research. The university has been a force in AI for decades, although Silicon Valley has taken the lead. MIT is also a powerhouse when it comes to commercializing its intellectual property, collaborating with companies and creating new ones. The IBM deal will boost that ability and offer some appealing opportunities for faculty and students.  

Exciting advances could come out of this collaboration, particularly in the context of how AI might be used in healthcare. And again, while this is a large investment, MIT has worked closely with industry since its founding. At the same time, especially as concern rises about the sometimes insidious impacts algorithms have on our lives, the high profile of industry in academic research raises some questions. Mainly, how much is profit motive affecting what researchers are developing and how that work is being used?

Of course, there’s another influx of money in the same arena, although acting as a sort of counterweight, and that’s the philanthropic push to ensure AI is responsibly serving the public interest, which we’ve covered at length. One such effort backed by a coalition of funders is happening right at MIT’s Media Lab, along with nearby Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center. That should make for some lively conversation around Cambridge.