IBM and MIT launch $240M AI research lab with a focus on healthcare applications

A new lab funded by MIT and IBM Watson will devote significant energy to AI applications in healthcare. Pictured above, MIT President L. Rafael Reif, left, and John Kelly III, IBM senior vice president, Cognitive Solutions and Research, shake hands at the conclusion of a signing ceremony establishing the new MIT–IBM Watson AI Lab. (Jake Belcher, MIT News)

IBM and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have inked a 10-year, $240 million deal to develop a research lab devoted entirely to artificial intelligence, with a heavy emphasis on healthcare.

The collaboration’s core objectives will focus on advancing AI algorithms and expanding the capabilities of machine learning, according to Thursday’s announcement, which noted the lab will be “one of the largest long-term university-industry AI collaborations to date.” MIT professors and students will have access to IBM’s research lab which includes IBM Watson Health and IBM Security.

Although the lab will broadly focus on AI’s impact across several industries, there’s a clear emphasis on how to integrate new algorithms into healthcare and cybersecurity. Anantha Chandrakasan, the dean of MIT’s School of Engineering, who helped broker the agreement, said cancer diagnosis is a particular target, including the use of AI in imaging and radiology to detect breast cancer.

“This new collaboration will also provide a framework for aggregating knowledge from different domains,” he said in a Q&A with MIT News. "For example, a method that we use for cancer detection might also be useful in detecting other diseases, or the tools we develop to enable this might end up being useful in a non-biomedical context."

Beyond research, MIT and IBM plan to launch new companies to commercialize AI technologies and innovations developed in the lab.

“True breakthroughs are often the result of fresh thinking inspired by new kinds of research teams,” MIT President Rafael Reif said in the announcement. “The combined MIT and IBM talent dedicated to this new effort will bring formidable power to a field with staggering potential to advance knowledge and help solve important challenges.”

The announcement comes on the heels of an in-depth investigation by STAT into IBM Watson’s failure to generate new cancer treatment options despite tremendous marketing hype. Experts say some of the same issues that plague the health IT industry broadly—like data aggregation and interoperability—have been barriers to Watson’s success in oncology.

MIT’s partnership with IBM marks the second AI collaboration in the Boston area. In May, GE Healthcare and Partners HealthCare announced a 10-year partnership to develop AI-based applications for healthcare. Last year, the University of California San Francisco launched a collaboration with GE Healthcare to focus on image-based applications for machine learning.