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IBM and MIT pen 10-year, $240M AI research partnership

IBM and MIT came together today to sign a 10-year, $240 million partnership agreement that establishes the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab at the prestigious Cambridge, MA academic institution.

The lab will be co-chaired by Dario Gil, IBM Research VP of AI and Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of MIT’s School of Engineering.

Big Blue intends to invest $240 million into the lab where IBM researchers and MIT students and faculty will work side by side to conduct advanced AI research. As to what happens to the IP that the partnership produces, the sides were a bit murky about that.

This much we know: MIT plans to publish papers related to the research, while the two parties plan to open source a good part of the code. Some of the IP will end up inside IBM products and services. MIT hopes to generate some AI-based startups as part of the deal too.

“The core mission of joint lab is to bring together MIT scientists and IBM [researchers] to shape the future of AI and push the frontiers of science,” IBM’s Gil told TechCrunch.

To that end, the two parties plan to put out requests to IBM scientists and the MIT student community to submit ideas for joint research. To narrow the focus of what could be a broad endeavor, they have established a number of principles to guide the research.

This includes developing AI algorithms with goal of getting beyond specific applications for neural-based deep learning networks and finding more generalized ways to solve complex problems in the enterprise.

Secondly, they hope to harness the power of machine learning with quantum computing, an area that IBM is working hard to develop right now. There is tremendous potential for AI to drive the development of quantum computing and conversely for quantum computing and the computing power it brings to drive the development of AI.

With IBM’s Watson Security and Healthcare divisions located right down the street from MIT in Kendall Square, the two parties have agreed to concentrate on these two industry verticals in their work. Finally, the two teams plan to work together to help understand the social and economic impact of AI in society, which as we have seen has already proven to be considerable.

While this is a big deal for both MIT and IBM, Chandrakasan made clear that the lab is but one piece of a broader campus-wide AI initiative. Still, the two sides hope the new partnership will eventually yield a number of research and commercial breakthroughs that will lead to new businesses both inside IBM and in the Massachusetts startup community, particularly in the healthcare and cybersecurity areas.

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Faster and stronger lithium-ion batteries might be in our future

This, clearly, isn’t the battery the MIT team is working on.

Image: Shutterstock / sdecoret

The lithium-ion battery in your phone might look like a solid chunk of energy-producing plastic at first glance, but if you were to bust it open and take a closer look, you’d see there’s also some liquid inside. That’s because most lithium-ion batteries are composed of multiple parts: two solid electrodes, separated by a polymer membrane infused with a liquid or gel electrolyte.

Now, MIT researchers believe they have taken the first steps forward in the development of all-solid-state lithium-ion batteries, according to new research published in Advanced Energy Materials. In non-nerd speak, that basically means batteries that could store more energymeaning less trips to a power outlet.

The team’s report was co-authored by grad students Frank McGrogan and Tushar Swamy. They investigated the mechanics of lithium sulfides, which could someday replace the liquid as a more stable, solid form of electrolyte.

Switching out the liquid electrolytes for solids could be a big move. The all-solid batteries would likely be able to store more energy, “pound for pound,” at the battery pack level than current lithium-ion packs. They’d also be much less unstable, since dendrites, which are metallic projections that sometimes grow through liquid electrolyte layers, would be less likely to occur.

The research team looked to to test the sulfide’s fracture toughness, which is essential to the material’s role in a lithium-ion battery. If it’s too brittle and can’t handle the stresses of continual power cycling, it could crack and open up space for those same dendrites to form.

The MIT team probed the sulfide-based material to learn more about its mechanical properties.

Image: MIT

The research faced one significant hurdle, however: the sulfide is so sensitive to room conditions it can’t be experimented on in the open air. In order to test the material, the team placed the sulfide in a bath of mineral oil to prevent it from reacting before being measured for its mechanical properties. This was the first experiment to test for lithium sulfide’s fracture properties.

After the test, the researchers concluded that the material does indeed crack under high stress conditions, “like a brittle piece of glass.”

That said, the knowledge gained could allow the team to build new battery systems by “calculat[ing] how much stress the material can tolerate before it fractures, according to MIT associate professor Krystyn Van Vliet, who contributed to the research.

Co-author Frank McGrogan agrees. This exact form of the sulfide won’t be the solid material that makes it into the form of lithium-ion batteries we use today. But since the team can study its properties and design new battery systems around that knowledge, someday it could still have potential for use.

You have to design around that knowledge, he said.

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