Decades ago, Microsoft had been led by great management to achieve their initial goal – a personal computer on every desk, in every home. Through a competition-driven effort, tech giants have almost succeeded in that goal, and then some – putting the same devices in miniature forms on your backs, in your pockets and on your wrists.
But further than that, Bill Gates also had another goal: that computers would someday be able to see, hear, communicate and understand humans and their environment. A couple of decades and CEOs later, Microsoft has decided to go all in, and bet its future on AI development, judging from the amount of effort they’re throwing at it.
As Harry Shum, executive vice president in charge of Microsoft’s AI and Research group, says: “We truly believe AI is this disruptive force, even though it’s not new. The recent progress is just enormous. We certainly have seen that through our own products and engagement with customers. We also feel we have a very strong point of view about how we take AI to the next step.”
Satya Nadella, current CEO formed the Microsoft AI and Research group twelve months ago as a fourth engineering division at the company, alongside the Office, Windows and Cloud & Enterprise divisions. The move reflects Nadella’s belief in “democratizing AI” – making it widespread enough to change how humans interact with the world entirely.
In its first year of operation, the AI and Research group has grown by 60 percent — from 5,000 people originally to nearly 8,000 people today – an impressive effort in R&D by any measure.
Rob Sanfilippo, research vice president at the independent Directions on Microsoft research firm, says the competition is fierce but that Microsoft isn’t going to back down on ‘giant’ opportunities:
“Microsoft has made advances, but so have IBM, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others,” he said. “Arguably, in the consumer space, Amazon leads in AI mindshare — more people are acquainted with Alexa than Cortana. Microsoft is looking to avoid missing giant opportunities as it did with mobile and social media, so it is giving its AI strategy a lot of attention and resources.”
Other giants that have started elsewhere and then branched over to AI already have a head start. Google started with search engines, Facebook with social media, Amazon as a trade depot – yet all of them converge on the idea that AI is the thing that will make or brake the future of their company.
Yes, the power of just the idea of AI, even though it doesn’t exist yet, is THAT powerful – it drives entire industries in competitive efforts.
Microsoft has advantages and disadvantages in this quest. The mountains of collected data, the raw material of machine learning, will certainly give them plenty of material to experiment with. Their $26 billion acquisition of LinkedIn, the largest deal in Microsoft’s history is also a proof of branching out towards new industries.
LinkedIn might prove to be just the platform for the collection of even more data.
Then there’s Microsoft Research, founded more than 25 years ago based on Gates’ original vision. It’s stocked with computer scientists and engineers who have spent years pursuing breakthroughs in areas such as deep neural networks, computer vision, machine translation and other fundamental underpinnings of artificial intelligence.
The idea behind AI and Research is to get those researchers working side-by-side with product teams to move artificial intelligence advances — some of them in the works for years or decades — out of the labs and into new and existing products.
People inside the group point to early progress from this approach. In one example, a researcher’s new method for getting computers to recognize human emotion was released as an API for Microsoft cloud customers in a matter of weeks rather than languishing for months or longer after the publication of an academic paper.
“We’ve had this dream for a long time — that systems could be smarter and model the way you think,” said Lili Cheng, a longtime Microsoft researcher and engineer who now leads the company’s AI developer platform as a corporate vice president in the AI and Research group. The company’s leaders believe that aligning the researchers and product groups will allow that to happen faster.
And in a surprise move that reflects Nadella’s pragmatic approach, Microsoft announced a deal with rival Amazon to connect Cortana and Alexa, their voice-activated AI assistants. The news also illustrated their respective strengths: Amazon in consumer technology, and Microsoft in enterprise technology.
More artificial-intelligence announcements to come next week at the company’s Ignite conference in Orlando. Nadella is said to be the keynote speaker at the event. We’ll see what they have in store for us, because even with all the activity, Microsoft and the field of AI have a long way to go.