Competition Project Reveal

"The heart of the matter really goes back to Uncle's hanging."

My daughter begins her argument in the nervous, rushed breaths of an eleven-year-old with a lot riding on the outcome of her case. I'll be honest, it's an unexpected opening and not one I think she'd have crafted a year ago before an amazing teacher came into her life that sparked a thirst for history and even research.

Still, this is going to be a tough argument for her to win and today represents her third and final attempt. Time is running out for the day her science class is going to dissect a cow’s lung, a task she dreads, but I feel my duty as a science loving parent is to encourage her to try. When I first asked her why she didn't want to do it, she said she didn't have the right words but she would apply her new research skills and get back to me. Proud parent moment number one – how could I resist?

Her first attempts were somewhat thwarted by how open ended the problem was and the quality and scale of data available to her through the Internet. In trying to find her voice she ended up citing some sources that backfired on her a bit, like the PETA article that really demanded she also become vegetarian to legitimize her stance – a step she was not willing to take. Still, she persisted, it wasn't just that she felt bad for the cow, I just didn't understand yet.

Feeling hopeless and distraught, she was picked up from school one day by my father, named after his great uncle Dan we all knew had met an unfortunate end in the wilder days of the West by the hands of a posse for the thieving of a horse. To be honest, this is as much of the story I can recall. I'm sure I heard far more details as a small kid, after all this is my father's namesake, but now I sit back to hear how on Earth my daughter plans to weave this story into her argument.

"You see, back then, horses were tamed by 'breaking' them, usually first by riding them into a deep river and wearing them out a few times, and if that didn't work, additional violence was applied. Dan wasn't very popular with the ranch hands but his little sister (my great, great grandma) thought he'd hung the moon. She had fallen in love with the ranch owner's youngest son, Charles (great, great grandpa), but the ranch owner himself was a hard man who was even harder on his kids.", she was frequently referring to notes, but she'd clearly taken the story to heart.

"Charles had made friends with a foal but it was time for the horse to be broken and it was clear that that was going to take additional steps. Charles was forced by his father to beat the horse and cobble its feet together until it bled but, betrayed and afraid, the horse was still un-rideable. His father told him he would be taught a lesson and put the horse down in the morning if it still had spirit. Charles felt awful which made Dan's little sister feel awful and Dan just couldn't have that. In the night he helped the horse escape into the wild with a few more for good measure, but he was seen and, livid, the ranch owner got a posse together to hunt him down."

She finished with a smile that suggested she had already won. It was a good story and I had started to remember bits and pieces, but I was struggling to see how it connected. "OK, but help me out, how does this relate to you doing science?"

Her eyes nearly rolled that I still didn’t get it, "Dad, it isn't science, we aren't discovering anything new, it's education. It's killing an animal for the sake of 'teaching a lesson', just like the horse was going to be before Uncle Dan saved him!" In the end I agreed to look into if the cow was being used just for education or was already being used for burgers, a fine compromise we both felt good about.

Stories, especially our own, are powerful things. The IBM Watson AI XPRIZE is about humanity's grand challenges and I'm excited to finally take the wraps off of our entry into this four-year competition. Our team goal is to use artificial intelligence in order to provide a whole new medium through which to tell our stories.

There's something powerful about interactive oral history that is not captured through static, written word. Data is plentiful but insights are rare. My daughter knew in her heart what was bothering her, but it took bouncing ideas and stories around with my father for her to understand it herself.

Understanding is the key to AI that can mix and remix our stories back to ourselves as cohesive narratives in the "voice" of the authors. In AI research this is referred to as semantics, or meaning, and it's a very hard nut to crack. After all, meaning itself can fall into the realm of philosophy. Ask three people, "what is the meaning of life?", get three different answers (unless they all reply, "I dunno.").

Our approach to semantics is to narrow the scope, in this case, to elements of storytelling. We think the applications are nearly endless and that, perhaps audaciously, rises to meet the definition of one of humanity’s great challenges. After all, one of the most important legacies we leave is our story. Upon the shoulders of not just the rare geniuses and giants but upon generations and billions of voices we stand and build our technologies and our cultures. Some of the applications we are pursuing include:
* A new way of journaling that can help ourselves and those we pass our stories along to in ways one, static form of written retelling simply cannot. * A new way to interact with historic figures with a lot of written material ("text corpora") that can be learned from and interacted with in a conversant way that mounds of reading doesn’t necessarily covey for students. * The ability to have real time conversations with pen-pals across faraway time zones and even across languages – or maybe someday the time delays of the vast distances of space. * Preservation of not just individual stories but that of entire cultural identities in the context of their time. * A new approach to rich, interactive fiction.

We're crafting a series of posts to dive into the details of this project. In the meantime, message us or leave a comment if there are questions you'd like answered! If you're interested in helping out with the team or the project in general, we'd love to hear from you as well!