Have 10 hours? IBM will train you in AI fundamentals - for free

I spent my holiday break earning my digital credential in AI from IBM. The last session was my favorite.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Long before ChatGPT blasted onto the scene and sucked all the air out of the room, there was IBM Watson. Watson itself blasted to fame when, in 2011, it beat reigning champion Ken Jennings on the TV game show Jeopardy.

Fun fact: ZDNET's own Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols was once a clue on Jeopardy.

Anyway, back to our story. My point is that IBM has a long history with AI and has not been sitting still. Its generative AI solution is called Watsonx. It focuses on enabling businesses to deploy and manage both traditional machine learning and generative AI, tailored to their unique needs.

Also: AI in 2023: A year of breakthroughs that left no human thing unchanged

I'm telling you this because if any company has the cred to offer a credential on AI fundamentals, it's IBM.

IBM's AI Fundamentals program is built inside of its SkillsBuild learning portal. The credential takes about ten hours to complete, across six courses.

Because I have had a long interest in AI ethics (I did a thesis on AI ethics way back in the day), I took the AI ethics class. It was good.

Also: I fact-checked ChatGPT with Bard, Claude, and Copilot - and it got weird

It discussed the challenge of balancing technology with ethical responsibility. Key topics included the five pillars of AI ethics, the importance of fairness and avoiding bias, and the need for AI systems to be transparent, explainable, and robust against attacks. The session also emphasized governance, the protection of personal data, and the significance of privacy through data minimization and differential privacy.

When I originally wrote this in early December 2023, I said "I'll probably take the rest of the courses over the holiday break." I did, indeed, do that. I'll share some of my experiences, along with answering a few reader questions, at the end of this article.

To get started, create a free account on IBM's SkillsBuild learning portal. All of the following links to IBM's free AI courses require you to have created that account and logged in before you'll be able to use them. 

Artificial Intelligence Fundamentals Learning Plan: In this learning plan, you'll explore AI's history, and then see how it can change the world. Along the way, you'll deep dive into ways that AI makes predictions, understands language and images, and learns using circuits inspired by the human brain. After a hands-on simulation in which you build and test a machine-learning model, you'll finish with tips on how to find your career in AI.

Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (1 hour 15 mins): Less than a century old, AI has already undergone three waves of transformative development. Today it gives humanity the most powerful tools for analyzing complex data, not only to find meaning but also to learn without human intervention. In this course, you'll survey AI's history and explore ways that it can shed light on unstructured data.

Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision (1 hour 30 mins): You might already know that some AI systems can understand human language, identify visual images, and even create original art. But do you know how these systems do it? In this course, you'll explore the theory of natural language and vision processing and learn how these technologies drive real-world mechanisms such as chatbots and photo analysis.

Machine Learning and Deep Learning (2 hours): In this course, you'll see how machines can learn and make amazing, evidence-based predictions. Explore the logic behind computers' ability to learn, then investigate new ways that AI systems inspired by neurons in the human brain can solve difficult problems.

Run AI Models with IBM Watson Studio (1 hour and 45 mins): In this course, you'll practice creating an AI machine learning model in a series of simulations, using IBM Watson Studio. This is hands-on time that can help you do actual work with AI.

AI Ethics (1 hour and 45 mins): You might have heard about problems that arise when AI systems misinterpret data or propose solutions that reflect human prejudice. This is the course I talked about above. Through real-world examples you'll learn about AI ethics, how they are implemented, and why AI ethics are so important in building trustworthy AI systems.

Your Future in AI: The Job Landscape (1 hour): Are you considering a career in AI? In this course, learn about the AI job market's rapid growth and the skills needed for success in this exciting field. You'll hear how real professionals got their start, and find resources and learning opportunities that could help you work alongside them.

My experience taking the full course

The week between Christmas and New Year's Day is usually fairly quiet, especially when it comes to the usual daily email traffic. This year I used that time to take this course, doing one session most days, and circling back later in the day for a second session on two of the days.

Most sessions are a combination of reading, with a few spotlight videos thrown in. They end with a quiz. Since you can retake the quiz over and over again until you get it right, there's no need to fear test taking. I got most of the quizzes correct the first time out, but when my little dog distracted me, I wound up retaking one -- with no negative impact on my coursework.

Also: How to use Bing Image Creator (and why it's better than ever)

Each course dives into an aspect of AI and helps explain it. Without a doubt, I have a better feel for some of the generative AI processes than I did before taking it. More to the point, the courses were interesting and the video lectures engaging. There were also some interactive experiences in the course that I found compelling.

Most of the courses are vendor-agnostic, but there was a Watson course that was specific to IBM's offerings. It didn't take more than an hour or so, and while I'm not in IBM's target market for their offering, it wasn't a waste of time to learn what IBM has for AI-related solutions.

As I said earlier, I liked the ethics section. And if you're interested in a job in AI, you'll like the last session, which is a full dive into what to expect if you want to work in this field. It's worth the price of admission (even if admission wasn't free) for that session alone.

I wound up with an official certificate, which I posted onto my LinkedIn profile. Stay tuned, because I'll be showing you how to add a verifiable training certificate to LinkedIn within the next week or so. Overall, the course was a great experience and I got a lot out of it. 

Also: These are the jobs most likely to be taken over by AI

Also, a few of you asked about signing up for the course. There was some confusion because you can't get to the course directly. Be sure to go to the main IBM SkillBuild entry portal and create an account. Once you have a verified account (it's free), then you can get into the courses IBM offers.

Finally, the IBM folks asked me to tell you they also offer a free Fundamentals of Sustainability and Technology course. You can find it on SkillBuild as well. That course, too, offers a verifiable credential.

More resources

This is the third article in our series of free learning resources for those interested in exploring AI or building a career around this amazing technology. I also explored Amazon's free AI courses and free AI courses from OpenAI and DeepLearning

So there you go. Sign up now and use your spare time to get a new credential. If you take any of these courses, please report back below in the comments and let us know what you think. And stay tuned. I expect to provide more resources early in 2024 for you to continue your free AI learning journey.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter on Substack, and follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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