There are 147 teams competing in XPrize’s broad-ranging AI competition

The Xprize foundation has whittled its latest competition down from 10,000 sign ups to 147 teams in its first-ever “open” competition. Announced in June of last year, the IBM Watson AI Xprize is the first not to identify a specific problem. Rather, teams are asked to define their own issue and address it using artificial intelligence.

“Unlike other prizes that have a very specific end-point in mind, we’re asking teams to be more free, in terms of the problems they’ll be solving,” competition leader Amir Banifatemi told TechCrunch in a conversation this week. “Because AI is involved in everything, we’re asking teams to frame the problems that are grand challenges, and use those grand challenges as a backdrop and try to come up with a solution address them.”

The result, naturally, is as wide-ranging as the teams. The 147 entrants represent 22 countries and a broad variety of different topics, from health, to space, to infrastructure to the environment. Each will be asked to employ artificial intelligence to address their issue. The teams, naturally, will have access to Watson, as IBM plunked down the $5 million in prize money, though they’re welcome to explore other AI avenues in to help execute their mission.

The number will be pared down over multiple rounds, with the next one expected to halve the current selection. Though, due to the fact that AI as an ever evolving concept with increasing capabilities, the company is also tossing in a Wild Card round, allowing more teams to enter the fray as more possibilities are unlocked.

It’s a much broader scope than we’re used to from the foundation. And honestly, at this stage it feels a bit unfocused – and likely difficult to judge, giving the subjectivity of attempting to compare projects with entirely different goals in completely different fields. Though Banifatemi says that the broad scope is necessary for dealing with AI and helping showcase its wide-ranging potential as it becomes an ever more present aspect of daily life.

“These teams will use AI to try to demonstrate how machines and humanity can use AI to collaborate to build applications that have meaningful applications on life,” he says. “It’s hard for most people to conceived of what [AI] can do, so the sooner we have an idea of possibilities, practical applications, and the way people can collaborate around them will provide a good framework for understanding AI’s possibilities as early as possible.”

The competition is running through 2020, at which point teams will demo their project on-stage at a TED conference. The grand prize winner $3 million, second gets $1 million and third walks away with $500,000. And to keep the various teams incentivized over the course of the next three years, milestone money prizes will be handed out in 2018 and 2019. All or nothing is a lot to ask for a project that’s set to occupy a chunk of teams’ next few years.

It’s an interesting experiment for the XPrize, which has traditionally been more focused in its missions, like the Star Trek-inspired Tricorder that won a Qualcomm-sponsored competition last month. But, then, this is moonshotting we’re talking about here. Go big or go home, right?