Microsoft creates new AI lab to take on Google's DeepMind

Microsoft is setting up a new research lab focused on artificial intelligence with the goal of creating more general-purpose learning systems.

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The new lab, called Microsoft Research AI, will be based at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., and involve more than 100 scientists from across various sub-fields of artificial intelligence research, including perception, learning, reasoning and natural language processing.

The goal, said Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, is to combine these disciplines to work toward more general artificial intelligence, meaning a single system that can tackle a wide-range of tasks and problems. Such a system, for instance, might be able to both plan the best route to drive through a city and also figure out how to minimize your income tax bill, while also understanding difficult human concepts like sarcasm or gestures.

This differs from so-called narrow AIs, which are just designed to perform a single task well -- for instance, recognize faces in digital photographs.

In entering the race to develop more general learning systems, Microsoft will be competing with other AI research companies, such as London-based DeepMind and San Francisco-based Google Brain, both divisions of Alphabet, as well as OpenAI, whose founders include Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, and GoodAI, a small research outfit in the Czech Republic.

"The field has undergone a tremendous amount of centrifugal force over the years," Horvitz said in an interview, noting how computer vision experts rarely talked to natural language processing experts or vice versa. The goal of the new Microsoft lab, he said, was to bring all these researchers back together and get them talking to one another and working on common goals.

In addition to its existing researchers, Horvitz said Microsoft plans to hire computer scientists and experts in fields such as cognitive psychology to join the new lab. The new Microsoft lab will also partner with the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Horvitz said.

Microsoft is partnering with many of its new rivals in an effort called the Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society that is looking at the ethical implications of the development of more powerful, increasingly ubiquitous, machine learning systems.

Horvitz, who was the co-founding chair of the Partnership on AI and will take over as sole chair next year, said that as Microsoft developed more advanced AI capabilities, it was critical that these systems were perceived as both fair and transparent.

To that end, Microsoft also said Wednesday it was creating a new company-wide advisory panel, consisting of representatives from each of its corporate divisions and also chaired by Horvitz, to provide ethical oversight for the company’s AI efforts. The panel, called AI and Ethics in Engineering and Research, or Aether for short, will report directly to Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella.

The new initiatives on AI research comes at a time when AI-enabled products—such as its voice-activated digital assistant Cortana—are becoming more critical to Microsoft. Last week, the company reorganized its sales force to focus more on selling products related to artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

In addition, Microsoft said Wednesday it was creating a new project called AI for Earth that will provide $2 million in cloud-computing credits and training in machine learning techniques to scientists doing research on sustainability issues related to agriculture, water, biodiversity and climate change. The project is being led by Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental scientist.

As part of its initial work, AI for Earth is supporting a project that is using computer vision to analyze satellite images of the Chesapeake Bay watershed to examine how development is impacting wetlands.

Another study, called Project Premonition, is tracking the spread of infectious diseases by analyzing the pathogens mosquitoes carry. The study envisions identifying mosquito hotspots using computer vision technology deployed on drones and then using robotic traps to capture insects to analyze. A third pilot program, called FarmBeats, is trying to put data in the hands of farmers to improve crop yields.

Microsoft’s competitors, such as Alphabet, have also talked about using AI to battle climate change and improve environmental sustainability, including lowering the power consumption of data centers and factories or boosting crop yields.

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