Six ways that Microsoft is advancing AI technology

Six ways that Microsoft is advancing AI technology

Microsoft shares how it is using AI to tackle environmental challenges and improve lives

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft’s AI and Research Group, spoke at an event in London last week about the advances and positive impact that artificial intelligence (AI) can make to both individuals and the environment. Plans were announced to use this technology to address some of society’s most fundamental challenges.

During the event, Microsoft spokespeople laid out the company’s AI vision, which involves making the technology more accessible and valuable to everyone. Here are six areas the company is working on to broaden the use of AI:

AI for Earth
Eric Horvitz, technical fellow and director at Microsoft Research Labs, spoke about AI for Earth, which uses the technology to help tackle some of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. Microsoft is investing more than US$2 million to help tackle issues related to water, agriculture, climate change and biodiversity across the world.

As well as offering access to cloud and AI computing resources, Microsoft plans to supply technology training sessions and lighthouse projects. Lucas Joppa, Microsoft Research lead on computational ecology, will head-up the programme as chief environmental scientist.

“AI will have a transformative effect on a range of sectors – from education and transportation, to agriculture and healthcare,” Horvitz said at the event. “AI can also do a lot for social good.”

Microsoft Research AI
Microsoft will set up a new research and incubation hub within its research department to address the most difficult challenges of AI. It will bring together engineers, researchers and experts, who will probe the foundational principles of intelligence, including efforts to unravel the mysteries of human intellect, and use this knowledge to develop a more general, flexible artificial intelligence.

Ethical Design Guide
Based on AI principles that Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, shared publicly last year, Emma Williams, general manager at Bing, announced an Ethical Design Guide for AI product development. This involves looking at how the technology can be used to best effect for people’s needs and wants.

“In a world where computers can talk to people… they must talk to us in a way we can understand, and be sympathetic and empathetic,” Williams said. “Microsoft is focused on man and machine working together. We understand the natural fears that arise as technology advances, but Microsoft sees humans as the heroes of this story. They are at the centre of everything we do.”

Seeing AI
Seeing AI is a Microsoft research project, available as a free iOS phone app, that helps blind and low-vision people access things they perhaps wouldn’t have been able to do before. The app can speak text as soon as words appear in front of the camera, provide audio guidance to capture a printed page, identify products via their barcodes and recognise saved friends and the area around the user.

Max Welling partnership
Microsoft has entered into a new partnership with machine learning expert Max Welling from the University of Amsterdam to help further the development of AI.

“We live in exciting times, and are seeing the biggest transformation in computing since Alan Turing,” Chris Bishop, technical fellow and laboratory director at Microsoft Research Cambridge, said. “We are seeing a shift from software that is handcrafted to software that learns from data. By using AI to tackle real-world problems, we can make the world a better place and allow the next wave of innovation to happen. This is the time for AI; we need to understand it and control it.”

Microsoft Cognitive Services
Microsoft introduced a number of updates to Microsoft Cognitive Services, a collection of services that enables developers to easily add intelligent features – such as emotion and sentiment detection, vision and speech recognition, knowledge, search and language understanding – into their applications. The updates include a new Bing Entity Search API and availability of the Project Prague gestures SDK and Presentation Translator.

Bing Entity Search lets you send a search query to Bing and get back search results that include entities and places. Place results include restaurants, hotels or other local businesses, while entity results include persons, places or things.

Presentation Translator is a PowerPoint add-in that gives presenters the ability to add subtitles to their presentations across the same language or more than 60 different languages. Audience members in the room can also follow along with the presentation in their own language, including the speaker’s language, on their phone, tablet or computer by using a QR code. This feature can also be used for audiences who are deaf or hard of hearing. The Microsoft Translator live feature is built using Microsoft Translator core speech translation technology.

“We are living in a golden age of AI advances,” Shum said. “We as a technology company have the chance to channel all those innovations into tools that help people do their jobs better and more efficiently, and that solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.”

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