Microsoft Executive Vice President for AI and Research Group Harry Shum
While most of the Microsoft faithful focused on the Inspire conference, the company held a smaller, but just as important meeting in London PHOTO: Microsoft

As Microsoft partners and customers watched Satya Nadella take the stage at the Inspire conference this week in Washington, D.C., Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft’s AI and Research Group was speaking at an entirely unrelated, but arguably as important, meeting in London.

While Nadella was unveiling Microsoft 365 and a number of complementary apps like Connections, Shum was outlining the Redmond, Wash.-based giant’s vision for artificial intelligence (AI).

Introducing Microsoft's Research AI Hub

Shum's announced the creation of a new research lab during his address. The Microsoft Research AI hub is based in Microsoft's headquarters and will focus on developing artificial intelligence technologies for both the business and consumer markets.

More than 100 scientists from cross-disciplinary AI fields including reasoning, natural language processing, perceptions and learning will comprise the Research AI team. They will work together to tackle a wide range of problems.

One AI Focus: Improving Productivity

According to Shum, the Research AI scientists and engineers will work with departments across the company to support integration of AI advances into products and services.

“We are living in a golden age of AI advances. Every day, it seems like computer scientists are making more progress in areas such as computer vision, deep learning, speech and natural language processing — areas of AI research that have challenged the field’s foremost experts for decades,” said Shum.

Microsoft is developing AI technologies to create tools “that help people do their jobs better.”

“The people who use those tools should be able to understand how they work and what data they rely on. AI can be more useful if the people who created and use the tools can explain how they work and why decisions are made,” he said.

And that's the heart of Microsoft’s vision for AI: improving productivity.

New and Existing AI Improvements

Microsoft, like many other tech companies, already uses AI in a number of places, and it unveiled more during the London event. 

Among the new releases are a Bing Entity Search API, as well as the availability of Project Prague gestures SDK and Presentation Translator, a PowerPoint add-in that can create presentation subtitles in more than 60 different languages.

Microsoft also introduced a number of updates to its Cognitive Services, which allow developers to add intelligent features, including emotion and sentiment detection, vision and speech recognition, knowledge, search and language understanding, into their applications.

The company continues to integrate its digital assistant Cortana deeper into the wider stack. And last week’s sales reorganization was implemented to make sales teams more responsive to the cloud and AI.

Competing For AI Share

Yesterday’s announcements came as no surprise. Microsoft is intent on ensuring it doesn’t miss the boat on AI in the same way it missed it with smartphones.

But of course Microsoft faces competition, including from the likes of Mountain View, Calif.-based Google.

Google's investments in AI are well known, for example its 2014 acquisition of DeepMind, an artificial intelligence company that builds general-purpose algorithms for use in simulations, ecommerce applications and games.

There is also Google Brain, a group of San Francisco-based Google researchers tasked with solving problems using AI and deep learning, and who have provided input into Google products like semantic search, voice search and image search.

IBM of course has Watson, while OpenText just announced the general release of Magellan, its artificial intelligence platform. Salesforce entered the fray in 2016 with Einstein.  

So while the enterprise technology competition currently focuses on productivity, cloud and mobile, it's becoming clear that AI looms big on the horizon.