Google's March Madness AI contest offers $100,000 in prizes

Forget office betting pools. The big bucks come if you can train a computer brain to predict the annual college tournament's winners and losers.

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Stephen Shankland
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Sample code to get started on a system to predict winners and losers in the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament.

Write code for an AI system to predict the outcome of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament and you could win $$$!

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Prizes can be useful incentives. They encourage people to take on challenges, say flying across the Atlantic Ocean or developing a self-driving car or finding large prime numbers

Now, Google has a great big incentive that will get almost the entirety of the country interested: $100,000 in prizes for computer scientists who write the best AI software to predict the outcome of the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament.

"The stats. The uniforms. Sheer wild guesses. Everyone has a strategy for making their picks for the NCAA's March Madness tournament," Eric Schmidt, a developer advocate at Google, in a blog post Monday. "This year there's a new play in the book: machine learning."

(In case you're wondering, this isn't the Eric Schmidt, the search giant's chief executive and now executive chairman of its parent company Alphabet. It's a totally different Eric Schmidt.)

Contestants get a mammoth database of 40 million basketball plays that have been recorded in the men's and women's NCAA Division I basketball games since 2009. The data scientists, who are also presumably hoops fans, will run them through their neural networks, a machine learning technology that is behind many of today's AI breakthroughs. A unit of Google teamed up with the NCAA, the competition organizer, to set up the competition. 

Scoring for the competition looks a little more complicated than that of an office betting pool. It involves a log-loss approach that grades you on how well your predictions fare for all matchups that actually take place. If you can handle programming neural networks, you should be fine.

The deadline to submit entries is Thursday.