Microsoft is consolidating several of its research and artificial intelligence divisions into the Microsoft AI and Research Group, the Redmond, Wash., software giant announced Sept. 29.
The new division consolidates many of Microsoft's research organizations and its AI workforce, an estimated 5,000 computer scientists and engineers. The unit encompasses the New Experiences and Technologies (NExT) organization and AI product engineering, along with the company's basic and applied research labs, Microsoft said.
"We live in a time when digital technology is transforming our lives, businesses and the world, but also generating an exponential growth in data and information," said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, in a Sept. 29 announcement. "At Microsoft, we are focused on empowering both people and organizations, by democratizing access to intelligence to help solve our most pressing challenges. To do this, we are infusing AI into everything we deliver across our computing platforms and experiences."
Democratizing AI emerged as a major theme during Microsoft's Ignite conference in Atlanta this week.
During his Sept. 27 Ignite keynote, Nadella said his company isn't pursuing AI to outsmart humans in games. Rather, Microsoft aims to imbue its operating system software and businesses applications with assistive AI technologies that enhance a user's personal and workplace productivity.
"How we infuse every application—Cortana, Office 365, Dynamics 365—with intelligence," Nadella told attendees. "And the building blocks that constitute intelligence that are available as developer services in Azure. That's what we're doing. That's the approach we are taking."
The Microsoft AI and Research Group is led by Executive Vice President Harry Shum. The 20-year employee, formerly the head of Microsoft Technology and Research, also held leadership positions at Microsoft Research Asia and Bing search product development.
Echoing Nadella's statements, Shum in a statement said the "move signifies Microsoft's commitment to deploying intelligent technology and democratizing AI in a way that changes our lives and the world around us for the better. We will significantly expand our efforts to empower people and organizations to achieve more with our tools, our software and services, and our powerful, global-scale cloud computing capabilities."
Microsoft isn't the only tech heavyweight seeking to put AI to work.
Earlier this year, IBM announced new self-service AI capabilities for Watson Developer Cloud, enabling developers to build cognitive apps. The company also previewed its IBM Watson Knowledge Studio, a tool that employs machine learning and text analytics to enable users to quickly train their AI apps.
Siri, Apple's digital assistant technology, may also soon get an AI-infused boost. In early August, the Cupertino, Calif.-based device maker reportedly acquired AI and machine learning startup Turi (formerly known as Dato and GraphLab) for approximately $200 million. Turi specializes in software tools that enable coders to rapidly develop and embed machine learning into their applications.
Also last month, Intel acquired Nervana Systems for a reported $350 million. The 48-person startup's technology portfolio includes a software and hardware stack that is optimized for deep learning, a subset of machine learning.