Microsoft Using Machine Learning, AI Across Product Lines

Microsoft researcher and machine learning expert John Platt says the company is using machine learning to improve products such as Bing and more.

NEW YORK—Microsoft is using machine learning across the board in its products, and deep learning techniques are finding their way into more and more Microsoft technologies, including Windows Phone, according to the head of the company's machine learning department.

Speaking at the GigaOm Structure Data conference here, John Platt, Microsoft distinguished scientist and manager of the machine learning department at Microsoft Research, said the industry is getting closer to delivering on one of the old dreams of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates: Computers that can see, hear and understand.

Platt said machine learning not only is big in Microsoft Research, "but machine learning is pretty much pervasive throughout all Microsoft products. So whenever you use a Microsoft product you're using a system that's been generated from machine learning."

Moreover, whenever you use the search engine Bing, you're using many components that have been trained with machine learning, he said.

"Large amounts of that system are all done by machine learning because that's how you can do scale," Platt said. "The only way you can answer the billions of questions Bing answers is to have something that operates autonomously. In Xbox, the Kinect was also trained with machine learning. The fact that it can see you in the room even though it's poor lighting and you can wave your arms and it can track you—that's all done with a piece of software that was trained with machine learning."

In addition, Microsoft is using machine learning in security. The company arms its malware analysts with machine learning-driven technology, both to give the analysts "superpowers" to make them much more effective at searching through lots of data, and also by autonomously helping to find malware authors, Platt said.

As for deep learning surfacing in Microsoft products, "If you use the speech recognition on the Windows Phone or if you do it in Windows 8, that's totally trained with deep learning," Platt said. "And it's starting to make its way into the general search products, too."

However, despite advances in artificial intelligence (AI) technology, Platt said he does not yet see it being viable for "safety-critical" applications. "But we are starting to see some of these AI systems, in certain restricted sets, actually approach human levels of performance."

Platt said he looks at AI in three different silos: business intelligence, machine learning, and classic AI or deep learning.

"What I tend to work on is the machine learning, or data mining is what I call it for this particular subset, which is using data to actually create software," Platt said. "That's how we create a lot of software at Microsoft. So instead of following a spec, what you do is you gather a data set and you specify the goals of the software on that data set and at the end you get a piece of software that you can ship that was trained on the data set. That's sort of classical machine learning."