Foundation honoring 'Star Trek' creator offers million-dollar prize to develop AI that's 'used for good'

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 28: Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES episode, "The Cloud Minders." Season 3, episode 21. Original air date, February 28, 1969. Image is a frame grab. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and James T. Kirk (William Shatner). The foundation honoring "Star Trek's" creator hopes to encourage development of AI that benefits humanity. (CBS Photo Archive / CBS via Getty Images)

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

That's the mission of the USS Enterprise — and arguably the aim of a $1-million prize being offered through a foundation created to honor the father of the "Star Trek" franchise.

The Roddenberry Foundation — named for Gene Roddenberry — announced Tuesday that this year’s biennial award would focus on artificial intelligence that benefits humanity.

Lior Ipp, chief executive of the foundation, told The Times there’s a growing recognition that AI is becoming more ubiquitous and will affect all aspects of our lives.

"We are trying to … catalyze folks to think about what AI looks like if it's used for good," Ipp said, "and what it means to use AI responsibly, ethically and toward solving some of the thorny global challenges that exist in the world."

Read more:California lawmakers are trying to regulate AI before it's too late. Here's how

The Roddenberry Prize is open to early-stage ventures — including nonprofits and for-profits — across the globe.

Each cycle, the focal point of the award changes. The spotlight on AI and machine learning arrives as recent strides in the technology have sparked excitement as well as fear.

Concerns abound that AI threatens privacy, intellectual property and jobs, including the work performed by this reporter. Although it can automate busywork, it may also replicate the harmful biases of the people who created it.

California legislators are racing to address anxieties through about 50 AI-related bills, many of which aim to install safeguards around the technology, which lawmakers say could cause societal harm. The proposed legislation targets AI-related fears ranging from data security to racial discrimination.

“We’ve seen with other technologies that we don’t do anything until well after there’s a big problem,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who wrote a bill that would require companies developing large AI models to do safety testing.

“Social media had contributed many good things to society ... but we know there have been significant downsides to social media, and we did nothing to reduce or to mitigate those harms," he said. "And now we’re playing catch-up. I prefer not to play catch-up.”

Ipp said the foundation shares the broad concern about AI and sees the award as a means to potentially contribute to creating those guardrails.

The language of the application states that it’s seeking ethical proposals. And much like the multicultural, multi-planetary cast of "Star Trek," it’s supposed to be inclusive.

"Any use of AI or machine learning must be fair, transparent, respectful of individual rights and privacy, and should explicitly design against bias or discrimination against individuals, communities or groups," according to the prize website.

Inspiration for the theme was also borne out of the applications the foundation received last time around. Ipp said the prize, which is “issue-agnostic” but focused on early-stage tech, produced compelling uses of AI and machine learning in agriculture, healthcare, biotech and education.

"So," he said, "we sort of decided to double down this year on specifically AI and machine learning."

The most recent winner was Sweden-based Elypta, which Ipp said is using liquid biopsies, such as a blood test, to detect cancer early.

Though the foundation isn’t prioritizing a particular issue, the application states that it is looking for ideas that have the potential to push the needle on one or more of the United Nations' 17 sustainable development goals, which include eliminating poverty and hunger as well as boosting climate action and protecting life on land and underwater.

Read more:'Star Trek' is the greatest sci-fi franchise of all. Why it's stood the test of time

"Star Trek," which first aired in 1966, featured tons of enviable tech, including the universal translator, the tricorder — a handheld device that performed environmental scans, data recording and data analysis — and the transporter, useful for when you need to hop to an alien planet in a pinch.

And you could always trust Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy to employ the gadgets for good.

Those who meet the eligibility criteria for the Roddenberry Prize can apply through July 12. The grant will be awarded to one winner in November.

The foundation was launched by Gene Roddenberry's family after his death in 1991.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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