Opinion: Microsoft now considers AI a top priority – and it’s about time

Microsoft should be a pioneer alongside Google when it comes to artificial intelligence, but the company only now appears to consider it a priority.

In the company’s annual report for the 2017 fiscal year, AI is now mentioned on six occasions. Compared to not a single mention in the previous report, it’s clear Microsoft is now putting more of its focus on artificial intelligence.

Microsoft also indicates this in their corporate vision statement: “Our strategic vision is to compete and grow by building best-in-class platforms and productivity services for an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge infused with AI.”

AI is only just starting to get real momentum (hence why this very publication has been launched, hello!) but it seems to be another case of where the company has slumbered, and that’s incredibly frustrating because it has much to contribute.

Microsoft is in a very advantageous position to lead in AI. First off, it has Bing. While it doesn’t have anywhere near the user numbers of Google’s search engine, it has been crawling the world’s information and building a vast knowledge graph since it launched back in 2009. This is a valuable resource and it’s only Google in the western world that’s able to compete.

When you include eastern markets, then Baidu, China’s largest search engine, is also in a similar position. Google and Baidu are considered world leaders in AI, and their search engine backgrounds are part of the reason why.

Microsoft also has the talent. Rivals including Apple and Facebook have poached some of it, but there’s good reason. Microsoft is full of it. In fact, Microsoft is the biggest supplier of AI talent to Facebook, Amazon, and Google. The company should’ve looked at why their employees were heading elsewhere long ago, I’d wager it was a lack of momentum compared to rivals.

Finally, Microsoft has the users. Whether it’s enterprises using Azure, employees, and students on Windows, or even gamers on Xbox… the company has legions of people already using their products who could benefit from AI.

Ok, it’s not like Microsoft has been completely absent from AI, the company even has a fairly capable personal assistant with Cortana which in tests is only second to Google in its ability to understand and correctly answer general questions. Compared to Siri and Alexa, Cortana is ahead by a wide margin in this regard.

But while others have been advancing their capabilities rapidly, Cortana has stagnated. Today it’s the only assistant which is unable to control smart home devices.

When the Xbox One was launched, the console was marketed as being the one entertainment center for your home. Whether you wanted games, videos, TV, or music, you were supposed to find it on the “always on” Xbox. Microsoft missed a huge opportunity to make the Xbox the center of your smart home and give people a reason to want Kinect, a device which has seemingly become the perfect metaphor for Microsoft – impressive, yet often missing the mark.

Last year, Microsoft set up a dedicated research group for artificial intelligence reporting to Harry Shum, Vice President of Artificial Intelligence & Research, which consists of 7,500 scientists, researchers, and engineers from its product teams. The group’s purpose is to speed up Microsoft’s AI development and become as active in the community as the likes of Google, IBM, and Amazon.

A new research and incubation hub called Microsoft Research AI has also been set up within its research labs unit to work on solving problems associated with AI. Part of this work is to unite research in currently disparate areas such as deep learning, machine perception, and natural language processing. By integrating these disciplines, Microsoft believes it will cause the next technology breakthroughs, such as machine reading.

This is applaudable, but not if like a lot of Microsoft’s best work it just sits in a research lab. At least to help settle the concerns about AI going rogue the company has set up the Aether ethics advisory board alongside Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

As for the importance of AI, I’d go as far as to suggest there are similarities between the AI race and two of humankind’s most defining moments. The space race, and the nuclear arms race. The former was mostly about bragging rights, while the latter was a show of deadly capability to potential opponents.

China’s strict censorship and its ‘great firewall’ is renowned but earlier this year it went a step further when the nation blocked streams of Google’s AlphaMind AI beating the country’s Go champion. While usual sports broadcasts go uninterrupted, it was clear there was a political motive behind the decision to block the competition.

As we reported earlier this week, most cybersecurity experts believe AI will be weaponised over the course of the next 12 months. Whether by individual or state-sponsored hackers, the race is on for governments to match and/or exceed those capabilities. That is the dark side of AI no-one likes to discuss, but today’s battlefield is increasingly digital, and governments will be looking to weaponise AI.

That is the importance of AI, and it’s good to see Microsoft finally putting their full weight behind it, even if it should have been much sooner.

Are you looking forward to Microsoft focusing its efforts on AI? Let us know in the comments.

 Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this and sharing their use-cases? Attend the co-located AI & Big Data Expo events with upcoming shows in Silicon Valley, London and Amsterdam to learn more. Co-located with the  IoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo so you can explore the future of enterprise technology in one place.

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