Artificial Intelligence


Microsoft in global AI push to make smarter business, consumer applications

Software giant’s initiative augurs well for developers on the mainland, which is projected to have the world’s fastest-growing AI apps market

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 8:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 10:56pm

More than a year since it made a strategic pivot to artificial intelligence, Microsoft Corp has stepped up efforts to empower tens of thousands of software developers around the world to create smarter applications for businesses and consumers.

That could enable Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, to remain more relevant than ever in mainland China, where the market for AI applications is predicted to become the fastest-growing globally.

“There are plenty of opportunities,” Harry Shum Heung-yeung, the executive vice-president of Microsoft’s artificial intelligence and research group, said in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post. “Our approach is very simple: we are here to democratise access to AI.”

Shum, who was one of the founding members of Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia in 1998, currently leads a global team of roughly 7,000 computer scientists and engineers focused on the company’s AI initiatives.

After 60 years of development, AI has entered a new phase of accelerated growth, driven by major advances in computing power, the development of powerful machine learning and deep learning algorithms, and an explosion in data that can be fed into these algorithms, according to consulting firm McKinsey.

Machine learning is a type of AI focused on computer programmes that have the ability to learn when exposed to new data, while deep learning is an AI function that imitates how the human brain works in processing data to make decisions.

Microsoft this month started offering a broader set of so-called cognitive services to more than half a million developers around the world that currently use its AI platform. These 29 services, which include Bing custom search, video indexer and custom decision service, help developers infuse off-the shelf or custom AI capabilities on to their business or consumer apps.

A PowerPoint add-in called Presentation Translator, for example, allows real-time translation to multiple languages during any presentation. Microsoft has also launched its Cognitive Services Labs, where developers can experiment with new services ahead of their commercial launch.

“We have always been a company that has democratised technology in the hands of millions and millions of customers,” Shum said. “Microsoft was started by Bill Gates and Paul Allen as a tools company, with its basic interpreter, programming language, productivity software and Windows. AI [as a developer tool] is no exception.”

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, introduced his vision for how AI will transform the company, its products and services in September 2016.

“AI is going to disrupt every single business app – whether an industry vertical like banking, retail and health care, or a horizontal business process like sales, marketing and customer support,” Shum said.

Research firm IDC has forecast worldwide spending on cognitive and AI solutions to reach more than US$46 billion by 2020, up from an estimated US$12.5 billion this year.

Mainland China’s AI application market is projected to grow 50 per cent year on year, outstripping the 20 per cent annual growth expected across the global market, according to McKinsey.

“The [mainland] Chinese government has identified AI as a new engine of economic growth, and is pouring investment into academic research and economic incentives for AI enterprises,” a recent McKinsey report said. “For their part, [mainland] China’s internet giants are making AI a focus, while start-ups are developing AI applications in everything from robotics to health care to drones.”