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Microsoft Ignite: Nadella outlines 4 pillars for democratizing AI

At the 2016 Microsoft Ignite conference, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella led the Innovation keynote, and explained the four pillars to the company's approach to AI.

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Image: Microsoft

Microsoft will continue to focus on artificial intelligence (AI), according to CEO Satya Nadella, who also explained the company's approach to the technology on Monday at the 2016 Microsoft Ignite conference in Atlanta, GA. At the Innovation Keynote, Nadella outlined the firm's four pillars to democratizing AI: Agents, applications, services, and infrastructure.

As Nadella stated from the beginning of the keynote, Microsoft's goal is to "democratize AI." In what might have been a subtle jab at Google's DeepMind, he said that Microsoft is "not pursuing AI to beat humans at games," but rather to empower people and organizations.

Features such as handwriting recognition in Windows 10, or the ability to use Hello to unlock a device are just some of Microsoft's recent AI projects. However, their overall approach begins with the first pillar: Agent.

The agent that Nadella is referring to is an intelligent agent (IA), like Microsoft's Cortana. Nadella called the agent the third run time, or the new "organizing layer" that helps mediate the interaction of a human and a computer.

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For example, Cortana uses machine learning to find commitments you have made in an email, such as letting someone know you're going to follow up with them later, and reminding you to do so. Also, it focuses on your hobbies and fitness goals to make sure you're using your computer in every aspect of your life.

In terms of the application, Nadella spoke about wanting to help improve applications with better intelligence. The first example he gave was Swiftkey, to which Microsoft is adding neural networks to help better predict the next words that a user may want to swipe. It's no longer the keyboard that is attached to a device, Nadella said, "the keyboard is attached to you."

They also plan on adding more intelligence to core products, he said, like Office 365 and Skype. Nadella also noted that Microsoft is building a relationship assistant, shipping in November, that will be a part of the Dynamics CRM.

The services pillar centers around the Cortana Intelligence Suite, which recently got a few new capabilities. The bot framework, announced at the Build conference, helps make it easier for users to build intelligent bots for apps like Skype or Slack.

Cognitive APIs, also launched at Build, will be a big part of the services pillar as well. One example was Uber taking selfies of their drivers to verify their identity with image recognition, thereby improving safety. Or, Volvo using AI and cameras to determine if distracted driving is occurring.

Rounding out the four pillars was infrastructure, which focused on Azure. The Microsoft Azure cloud platform has intelligence features such as CNTK and TensorFlow, but the company is investing in more field-programmable gate array (FPGA) support across every compute node in Azure. Microsoft is now on a journey to develop the world's "most intelligent cloud." Their investment in FPGA is helping them to essentially put an "AI supercomputer" in the Azure cloud.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Microsoft is continuing its investment in AI and intelligence, focusing on these four pillars: Agent, applications, services, and infrastructure.
  2. Cortana is the agent, and applications like Dynamics CRM are getting new features that will boost their intelligence capabilities.
  3. Azure is getting a massive FPGA investment that will expand its compute power tremendously.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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