Microsoft Aims to Democratize Artificial Intelligence

Microsoft is working to infuse all of its products with artificial intelligence capabilities to bring more smarts to its applications and technologies portfolio.

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ATLANTA—Microsoft is working to make artificial intelligence available to everybody in a process the company refers to as "democratizing" AI.

The Microsoft approach is to take AI "from the ivory towers and make it accessible for all," the company said. It all started many years ago in Microsoft's research labs, where researchers in Microsoft facilities around the world worked to develop technologies such as speech to text and speech translation among a vast array of other things.

"The central thesis and goal we have with AI starts with our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more," said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, in his keynote at the Microsoft Ignite 2016 conference here.

"We are not pursuing AI to beat humans at games," Nadella said. "We are pursuing AI so that we can empower every person and every institution that people build with tools of AI, so that they can go on to solve the most pressing problems of our society and our economy. That's the pursuit."

Data is key to this effort. The ability to process massive amounts of data and convert it into intelligence is critical to this challenge. That intelligence shows up as handwriting recognition on Windows 10, or the Windows Hello feature—the ability to face-recognize you—or even magical new devices such as the holographic computer, with which you have the ability to digitally reconstruct and recognize everything you see and then to superimpose objects in that world, Nadella said.

"How we infuse every application—Cortana, Office 365, Dynamics 365—with intelligence," he said. "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."

Nadella said Microsoft has four core pillars supporting what it is trying to do with AI: agents, applications, services and infrastructure. And the company is taking a four-pronged approach to how it will democratize AI for all.

In its post on the issue, Microsoft said of these four points:

• We're going to harness artificial intelligence to fundamentally change how we interact with the ambient computing, the agents, in our lives.

• We're going to infuse every application that we interact with, on any device, at any point in time, with intelligence.

• We'll make these same intelligent capabilities that are infused in our own apps—the cognitive capabilities—available to every application developer in the world.

• We're building the world's most powerful AI supercomputer and making it available to anyone, via the cloud, to enable all to harness its power and tackle AI challenges, large and small.

At Ignite, Microsoft previewed new skills for its personal assistant and AI agent Cortana, including health insights and reminders. Meanwhile, the company announced that Office 365 has gained new cloud-powered intelligent capabilities, including Tap in Word and Outlook, which uses the Microsoft Graph to make it easier to incorporate content from existing documents within your organization into your own documents and emails.

Other AI-infused offerings include Quickstarter for PowerPoint and Sway, which provides curated outlines for any topic—including text and images—that can be used as a starting point to build presentations. There also is Maps, a new chart type in Excel powered by Bing Maps that transforms geographic data into high-fidelity visualizations.

Moreover, at the Ignite conference, Microsoft showed how customers are using Cortana Intelligence to innovate in their industries. Microsoft demonstrated how home improvement retailer Lowe's is using Microsoft AI technology and HoloLens to deliver a digitally enhanced kitchen remodel experience. And Uber announced it is using Microsoft Cognitive Services for its real-time ID check security feature to improve rider and driver security.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's Cortana Intelligence is the company's suite of tools for developers that want to build intelligent applications using Microsoft's cognitive APIs.

"We launched these at Build and since then we have had more than a billion API calls to these Cognitive APIs," Nadella said.

Herain Oberoi, senior director of product marketing at Microsoft, said the goal of the Microsoft Cortana Intelligence Suite is to help customers use big data, advanced analytics and machine learning technologies in the cloud to derive insights, predict outcomes and prescribe actions based on their data.

"Cortana Intelligence provides an end to end set of cloud services and pre-configured solutions to enable line of business departments such as sales, marketing, finance, operations and more to accelerate their digital transformation projects," Oberoi said in a blog post. "A year into the release, Cortana Intelligence has had big impact on customers across health care, retail, manufacturing, financial services and government and other industries. The range of creative solutions that our customers have come up with, to address their business needs, has been very impressive."