Microsoft Debuts AI Unit to Take on Tricky Questions

Artificial intelligence, cyber brain, illustration
Artificial intelligence, cyber brain, illustration
Photograph by Mehau Kulyk/SPL Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

Microsoft has created a unit within its broader artificial intelligence and research organization that will take on tough AI challenges, like how to use different AI technologies, to make software smarter.

The subset organization, called Microsoft Research AI, was announced in London on Wednesday by Microsoft executive vice president Harry Shum. It will employ about 100 researchers and be based at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash. headquarters.

The new unit is roughly analogous to Google’s DeepMind AI research organization.

Broadly speaking, AI comprises several technologies meant to endow software with human-like intelligence. Computers that recognize speech and images are manifestations of AI. Thus when you ask Amazon Alexa to order a pizza, or ask Apple (AAPL) Siri, or Google Assistant, about a fun fact, you are tapping the fruits of extensive AI research.

Tech companies see gold in AI which is why IBM (IBM), Google (GOOGL), Salesforce (CRM) and others slather their marketing materials with references to AI when applicable. And even when not.

Related; Microsoft Loses Key Exec But Gains New AI Unit

If there is any doubt that AI is a hotbed of activity, the number of press releases generated claiming some link to it is a good measure. Other than this Microsoft news, this week IBM announced a new service based on its Watson AI technology running on IBM (IBM) cloud infrastructure. Its job: to automate the management of customer computer networks.

On Tuesday, business software maker Infor announced Coleman, its brand for the new AI underpinnings to its business applications. The name refers to pioneering NASA engineer Katherine Coleman Johnson—played by Tarji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures. Coleman is Infor’s version of Einstein, the brand Infor rival Salesforce slapped on its AI technologies last year.


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On Wednesday, travel services company Sabre (SABR) launched a text-activated chat bot, built with Microsoft AI technologies. If you’ve used a customer service chat app on a web site, you have likely interacted with a chatbot, which is supposed to answer questions so human customer service agents don’t have to.

Two Sabre-affiliated travel agencies are testing the new chatbot to see if it can give their clients an easy way to deal with the logistics of their trips. If the chatbot can handle frequently asked questions, travel agents can, theoretically, focus on more important things.

Note: (July 13, 2017 7:50 a.m. ET) This story was updated to correct Katherine Coleman Johnson’s name. An earlier version incorrectly referred to her as Katherine Johnson Coleman.)

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