Tech giant Microsoft is at the forefront of developing the artificial intelligence (AI) tools and services that are increasingly being adopted into all areas of business and society. In 2017, the words “artificial intelligence” were featured in the company’s vision statement for the first time ever, cementing the fact that smart machines – ones that are able to learn in a similar way to us humans – are central to everything Microsoft does.
How Microsoft uses Big Data in practice
When most people talk about AI, what they’re actually referring to is machine learning. That’s the technology that helps match searches with relevant search results, and gives Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana the ability to improve over time and become more helpful. Machine learning is also behind the chatbots that run on the Skype communication platform, answering customer service queries or delivering information like weather or travel updates to those who ask for it.
It may have only just made it into the vision statement, but Microsoft has been incorporating intelligent functionality into its products and services for a while now. Anyone who regularly uses Skype, Cortana, Bing or Office 365, has probably already come across this technology.
Within its Office enterprise productivity suite, for example, the company has been rolling out intelligent features that help users complete a range of everyday tasks, such as translating recorded speech.
It’s clear that AI and machine learning has already become entrenched in our lives, carrying out specific tasks with increasing accuracy as the tools “learn” and improve. But Microsoft doesn’t intend to stop there. It wants to see intelligent machines with generalised AI capabilities, meaning they can complete any task. Executive vice president of Microsoft’s AI and Research group, Harry Shum, has said, “Computers today can perform specific tasks very well, but when it comes to general tasks, AI cannot compete with a human child.”
To achieve this end of developing generalised AI, the company founded its AI and Research group in 2016 – making it Microsoft’s fourth engineering division, after the Office, Windows and Cloud groups. In the short space of time since then, the team has grown to an incredible 8,000 people.
Aside from the AI-enabled services it makes available directly to end users, Microsoft is also developing AI tools that are more industry specific. For example, the company recently announced a new AI-focused healthcare division that will develop predictive analytic platforms capable of identifying potential medical problems, diagnosing diseases, and recommending suitable interventions and treatments.
Businesses who want to create their own intelligent tools can make use of Microsoft’s overarching AI framework, called Microsoft AI Platform, which encompasses specialised packages like Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit, Microsoft Bot Framework and Microsoft Cognitive Services. These allow AI/machine learning algorithms to be deployed via the Azure cloud computing platform. Businesses simply pay for storage and processing as they need it. This democratisation of AI tools means companies can harness the tech without hosting their own expensive architecture.
The technical details
Microsoft recently announced new technology that will accelerate machine learning algorithms, so they work in real time. Project Brainwave, as the initiative is known, uses programmable processors called FPGAs to run the extremely sophisticated machine learning algorithms. This technology can be programmed directly onto a chip that can be installed into commodity hardware, effectively allowing that hardware to function as a deep neural network processing unit. Microsoft has been installing these FPGAs in its data centres around the world for the past few years.
Ideas and insights you can steal
The technology is advancing so fast that we’re on the verge of truly intelligent machines becoming reality. If we think of humans as Dr Frankenstein, working to create AI in a lab, our creation may not be up and on its feet, but its eyes have opened. We can see the lights are on and something’s home.
All the tech giants are in a race to establish themselves as AI leaders, and everything is to play for. If Microsoft can continue leveraging its vast user base and tech infrastructure in new and innovative ways, it may just emerge victorious.
Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, and advisor to companies and governments. He has worked with and advised many of the world's best-known organisations. LinkedIn has recently ranked Bernard as one of the top 10 Business Influencers in the world (in fact, No 5 - just behind Bill Gates and Richard Branson). He writes on the topics of intelligent business performance for various publications including Forbes, HuffPost, and LinkedIn Pulse. His blogs and SlideShare presentation have millions of readers.