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In 2011, @IBM’s Watson system squared off against two human champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, on the game show Jeopardy! It beat them both so handily that for his final response Jennings simply wrote, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” It was an awesome display, unlike anything anyone had seen before.

The implications went far beyond the company or the game show. Watson’s triumph kicked off an arms race in artificial intelligence. Later that same year, Apple launched Siri, its personal assistant. In 2015, Google’s AlphaGo computer beat a human champion at the famous Asian board game and Amazon launched its Echo smart speaker.

This summer, IBM raised the stakes again with its Project Debater, a system that can compete with skilled humans arguing about controversial topics. Much like Watson, Debater’s objective is not to launch a new product, but to expand horizons. While the full ramifications aren’t exactly clear yet, what is becoming clear is that we are embarking on a new era of possibility.

A History of Grand Challenges
In the technology industry, IBM is unique for its longevity. While others seem to rise and fall with each new cycle, the giant of Armonk has somehow managed to to stay on the cutting edge for over a century. It was a leader in tabulating machines, then mainframes, then PC’s, The Internet and now artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

A key to its success has been its history of grand challenges such as the Deep Blue project which defeated world champion Garry Kasparov at chess and the Blue Gene project which created a new class of “massively parallel” supercomputers and, more recently, Watson and Debater. These are pursued without any immediate business applications in mind, but are meant to stretch the boundaries of technology.

“A successful grand challenge is one that people, even experts in the field, regard as an epiphany and changes assumptions about what’s possible,” Bernard Meyerson, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer, told me. “The commercial value comes in applying those new possibilities to business problems.”

Project Debater is very much in the same vein. Nobody really knows how it will affect IBM’s products or its competitive position. Rather, it was a task undertaken to pursue problems that were, until now, considered to be unsolvable. If history is any guide though, it will drive the business forward for years to come.