Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella outlines plans to democratise AI

  • Microsoft hopes to revolutionise AI, like how the printing press changed how people created, consumed information
  • It's never about the technology, says Satya Nadella
 Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella outlines plans to democratise AI

DURING the recently-concluded Microsoft Ignite 2016 conference, Microsoft Corp chief executive officer Satya Nadella (pic above) outlined the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will play an integral part in the company's future road map.

Over the near-to-medium term, the company's strategy for AI will be making the technology accessible to everyone. 

"Our aim is to democratise AI... to take it from the ivory towers and make it accessible for all," said Nadella during his closing remark at Microsoft Ignite 2016 in Atlanta last week.

Satya hopes that its efforts will be able to revolutionise the way people use and create intelligence solutions, just like how the printing press and world wide web revolutionise the way people consume and create information.

"Since the printing press came out in the 1400s, we have an explosion of information. It was perhaps the first machine that democratise history of information," he said.

He said that the number of books have jumped exponentially -- from about 13,000 books 50 years ago, to over 12 million books today.

"It shapes how humans create and use information," he said.

In the digital world today, an IDC report said that the world generated close to 10 zetabytes in 2015. The number is expected to grow to 180 zetabytes by 2025.

"We are getting to a point where we don't even know what to name next (after zetabytes)," said Satya.

Despite the rapid growth in information, there's still one thing that remained constant: time.

"In the midst of this abundance of information, we are still constrained by our human capacity to absorb it. So, how can we use all we have in terms of computational power to solve this fundamental constraint and to make better sense of the world? That's the essence of what AI is," said Satya.

"AI is not about beating humans in games, it is about helping everyone to achieve more."

Meet Team AI

Few days ago, Microsoft announced the formation of a new 5,000-person AI division. The division will include Microsoft Research, along with the company's Information Platform Group, Bing and Cortana product groups, as well as its Ambient Computing and Robotics team. 

"The combined group will include more than 5,000 computer scientists and engineers," said Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft AI and Research Group, in his blog post.

The formation of the division also showed the increasing importance of AI in the group, and that AI is shitting the computer science research supply chain and blurring lines between research and product.

"End-to-end innovation in AI will not come from isolated research labs alone, but from the combination of at-scale production workloads together with deep technology in advancements in algorithms, systems and experiences. 

"The new group will provide greater opportunity to accelerate our innovation in AI, and to enable Microsoft to create truly intelligent systems and products for our customers," said Shum.

Big picture strategy

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella outlines plans to democratise AI

The move to go aggressive on AI is a reasonable one. It allows the company to be more competitive against other tech companies in the same field.

Today, tech giants like FacebookGoogle and Amazon have their respective AI initiatives.

If executed correctly, the strategy will also help Microsoft to come up with more relevant products and solutions to both its consumer and enterprise customers. In other words, better earnings in the long run.

For the full year ended June 30, 2016, the company's revenue declined 9% mainly due to the impact of the net revenue deferral from Windows 10 of US$6.6 billion, and an unfavourable foreign currency impact of about US$3.8 billion.

During the full year,  the company's Productivity and Business Processes division recorded a flattish growth at US$26.49 billion, versus US$26.43 billion a year ago. Its Intelligent Cloud division registered a 6% increase at US$25.04 billion.

Beefing up its AI initiatives, and incorporating AI into its other range of products, will help to create a positive impact towards the Productivity and Business Processes division in the long run.

AI plans

In order for the company to "democratise AI for all", Microsoft will be largely banking on four key strategies.

First, it will need to harness AI to fundamentally change the way people interact with the ambient computing and the agents. Secondly, it will infuse every application that it interacts with intelligence.

Thirdly, it will make these same intelligent capabilities that infused in its own apps available to every application developers in the world. 

Lastly, it will build the world's most powerful Ai supercomputer and make it available to everyone -- so that anyone can harness the power of AI to solve whatever challenges they are facing.

Scoring early AI successes

Although Microsoft may have announced its ultimate AI goal recently, the company has been actively involved in various AI-related projects over the past several years.

For example: Cortana (the company's intelligent personal assistant) is now having 133 million users, and some 12 billion queries have been asked of Cortana.

"Cortana works across devices. And, there is an ecosystem effect with the skills she's developing to surface information about your daily tasks in work and life, often before you know you need it," said Satya.

MileIQ, developed by Mobile Data Labs that was acquired by Microsoft in 2015, is a app that makes it easier for users to log business miles for taxes. Today, the app has logged 11 billion miles and helped millions to reclaim US$1.2 billion. 

In its own products, such as Office 365, the company has also introduced My Analytics. It is an app that tracks user's workday performance, by showing user how he/she has been spending their time with.

Partnership with Uber

Nadella also shared the progresses made in terms of its Cortana Intelligence Suite. So far, the technology has been used by various industries. Take the agriculture industry for example, users have been using it to predict weather patterns, and also to predict the right time to plant their seeds.

Recently, Uber announced plans to roll-out a new feature that enhances security by using a face recognition technology to ensure that the driver is valid.

The new feature, which is currently still under beta, is expected to be officially launched globally as early as end of this year.

Behind the new feature, is a technology powered by Microsoft. Uber uses face recognition APIs in Cognitive Services to enhance their mobile application.

AI for brick-and-mortars

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella outlines plans to democratise AI

Lowe's - which operates a chain of retail home improvement and appliance stores in the US - is also using Microsoft's technology to improve customer experience.

Using a device like HoloLens, and marrying it with the cognitive capabilities in Azure, and the preference graphs in services like Pinterest -- the company will now change the way home remodelling works.

Before, customers would go to the store, pick out designs and samples, head back home, look at them, tweak them, go back to the store, change designs/ samples, rinse and repeat.

"With machine learning and HoloLens, you can go to a retail outlet, recreate your remodel in front of your eyes, get the design you want and place your order. This is transformative, not just for retailers, but for their customers too," said Satya.

It's never about the technology

During the closing keynote, Satya reminded the over 22,000 participants that its AI ambition is never about showcasing its technology.

"It's never about our technology. it is really, to me, about your passion, your imagination, and what you can do with technologies that we create.

"What societal problem, what industry will you reshape? That is what we dream about, what we are passionate about.

"We want to pursue democratizing AI just like we pursued information at your fingertips.  But this time around, we want to bring intelligence to everything, to everywhere, and for everyone," said Satya.

Goh Thean Eu reports from Microsoft Ignite in Atlanta, at the invitation of Microsoft Corp. All editorials are independent.

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