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How Microsoft is returning to its former AI glory

For years and years, the tech behemoth based in Redmond, WA set the agenda of the computing world. There’s no denying the awesome impact and influence Windows and its parent company had on modern life. It skyrocketed to the top of the largest companies lists quarter after quarter and year after year. It vaulted its CEO and Founder Bill Gates into the top post on the richest people alive lists. It changed the game of personal computing forever.

And then, all of sudden, it started to fall behind.

Microsoft was behind on the mobile hardware game, missing out on the smartphone wave until Apple and Samsung already had a stranglehold on the industry. It missed out on the mobile software game too, ceding seemingly-perpetual control of the market to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

The story repeated itself in cloud computing, losing huge market share to Amazon when this market vertical should have always belonged to Microsoft from the jump — Azure is not nearly as far behind AWS as Microsoft phones are to iPhones, but Microsoft still ceded market control to a rival for failure to act timely enough.

The same could have happened with artificial intelligence — the holy grail of the next tech conflict between entrenched thought leaders — except Microsoft is out to reclaim its market leadership in a major way, and is finally on the right path.

According to a fascinating profile from Wired, the “great irony here is that artificial intelligence was once Microsoft’s game to lose. Dating back to the early 1990s, the company attracted the leading researchers in the field to work on speech recognition and vision. But then came a decade of stagnancy,” Jessi Hempel, the author concluded. “During much of this time, AI research was stagnant, too, devoid of the computing processing power or the vast amounts of data necessary to fuel real breakthroughs.”

Microsoft was early to the game on AI, but they let that lead lapse. The two monsters of AI, Google and Facebook, were claiming market leadership as far back as 2013. But Microsoft, determined not to cede control of the next wave of technological dominance, is fighting back, trying to turn a two-horse race into three.

You see, the field of deep learning is so new and advanced, you can count the intellectuals with the understanding and technical mastery to push the field forward on one hand. Yoshua Bengio is “one of the three intellects who shaped the deep learning that now dominates artificial intelligence,” and as a result has been “catapulted to stardom,” according to Hempel. “It’s a field so new the people who can advance it fit into one room together, and everyone — from tech startups to multinational conglomerates and the department of defense — wants a share of their minds.”

The other two minds? Yann LeCun and Geoffrey Hinton, who signed on with Facebook and Google, respectively. And Microsoft, yes, that Microsoft, landed the third in Bengio. Hempel continues:

[Bengio’s] bet is that the former kingdom of Windows alone has the capability to establish itself as AI’s third giant. It’s a company that has the resources, the data, the talent, and—most critically—the vision and culture to not only realize the spoils of the science, but also push the field forward. In January, in a move noted throughout the industry, Bengio agreed to be a strategic advisor to the company. This gives Microsoft a direct line to one of AI’s top resources for ideas, talent, and direction. And it’s a strong sign that Microsoft actually has a shot at making the ruling AI duo into a trio.

Artificial intelligence begins with data — the more data you have, the deeper the neural network, the more opportunity for machine learning. Google has the search results of basically everyone and everything. Pair that with email, phone operating systems, robust data capturing operations, cloud storage, etc., and you can see where Google gets its data for crunching. Facebook is equally easy to see — we provide it with all our personal information, photos, where we spend our time, what we read and watch, what we click on, etc. The platform is so ubiquitous to modern life, it’s hard to imagine getting around without it. But, Microsoft has some ammunition in the data wars itself…

Bing. No, I’m not joking.

I realize basically no one goes to Bing to begin their online search. But, it’s also “more pervasive than you think,” Hempel explains. “Essentially, any large tech company endeavoring to compete with Google has signed a partnership with Microsoft to power its search products with Bing. That means that Apple’s Siri and Spotlight are powered by Bing, as well as Amazon Kindle devices and, of course, the search function on Yahoo, Verizon, and AOL. Roughly 30 percent of the search queries in the United States come through Bing.”

That amount of data is nothing to scoff at, and it’s just the thing that Microsoft can leverage via Cortana, it’s virtual assistant (which compares favorably when stacked up against Apple’s Siri, OK Google and Amazon’s Alexa), to really compete in the next phase of technological innovation.

Microsoft may have built the software battlefield tech companies now fight on, but it has been outflanked badly in recent years, missing wave after important technological wave. The steps it’s taken recently demonstrate Microsoft is not going to allow Facebook and Google to own artificial intelligence without a fight — and this time, consumers might really be the better for it.


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Jeff Francis

Jeff Francis is a veteran entrepreneur and founder of Dallas-based digital product studio ENO8. Jeff founded ENO8 to empower companies of all sizes to design, develop and deliver innovative, impactful digital products. With more than 18 years working with early-stage startups, Jeff has a passion for creating and growing new businesses from the ground up, and has honed a unique ability to assist companies with aligning their technology product initiatives with real business outcomes.

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