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Microsoft Focuses on AI at Ignite Conference

Machine learning, cognitive services and other artificial intelligence-powered products and services for both IT pros and developers are front and center at Microsoft's Ignite conference this week.

AI-infused news touched upon everything from the company's cloud-based development services to its Cortana personal digital assistant to its Microsoft 365 (Office) suite of business apps.

Following are some examples that show just how much Microsoft is focusing on AI:

AI for Humanitarian Action
Microsoft said this program is meant to further the company's commitment to democratizing access to AI, seeking to harness the technology for humanitarian efforts such as disaster recovery, helping children, protecting refugees and displaced people, and promoting respect for human rights.

"In this era of the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge, businesses in every industry are looking for a trusted partner to help them transform," said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. "We are pushing the bounds in AI, edge computing and IoT, while providing end-to-end security to empower every organization to build its own digital capability and thrive in this new era."

Cybersecurity
The company said it's working to provide security operations at a global scale to work for all of its customers, leveraging AI. "At Microsoft, more than 3,500 full-time security professionals work with leading AI tools to analyze more than 6.5 trillion global signals each day," Microsoft said. "The company's global security infrastructure protects customers by securing datacenters, running a Cyber Defense Operations Center, hacking its own defenses (red-teaming), hunting down attackers, and blocking more than 5 billion distinct malware threats each month."

Just one aspect of that global effort is its Microsoft Threat Protection. "The service uses AI and human research to speed up investigations to eliminate threats faster, saving thousands of hours for overstretched security teams," the company said.

Azure Machine Learning
Microsoft's cloud-based Azure Machine Learning service is previewing a new feature that provides automated ML capabilities for AI development tasks such as data transformation, model selection and hyperparameter tuning.

"Automated machine learning is at the forefront of Microsoft's push to make Azure Machine Learning an end-to-end solution for anyone who wants to build and train models that make predictions from data, and then deploy them anywhere -- in the cloud, on premises or at the edge," Microsoft said in a blog post yesterday (Sept. 24).

The company also announced a new Python SDK to let developers access Azure Machine Learning from a Python development environment, such as Visual Studio Code, Visual Studio, PyCharm, Azure Databricks notebooks or Jupyter notebooks. The Python programming language is skyrocketing in popularity, in part because of its increased use in data science and advanced analytics scenarios.

"We heard users wanted to use any tool they wanted, they wanted to use any framework, and so we re-thought about how we should deliver Azure Machine Learning to those users," said Eric Boyd, corporate vice president, AI Platform. "We have come back with a Python SDK that lights up a number of different features." Those include distributed deep learning, and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), used for high-speed image classification and recognition scenarios in the Azure cloud. Supported models for training data include ResNet 50, ResNet 152, VGG-16, SSD-VGG and DenseNet-121.

Also announced were new model management capabilities to help developers manage Dockerized models using models and an images registry that integrate into continuous integration (CI/CD) pipelines.

Azure Cognitive Services
Another cloud-based AI offering, Azure Cognitive Services, received its own update. The service helps developers use intelligent algorithms in apps, Web sites and bots in order to leverage natural methods of communication -- such as speech -- for understanding and interpreting user interactions.

"Azure Cognitive Services allow you to infuse your apps with powerful pre-trained models that can help with vision, speech, language and Web search," Microsoft's Boyd said in a blog post. "We have over 1.2 million developers using Cognitive Services to deliver AI-led experiences to their users."

To help those developers out even further, Microsoft announced the general availability of its speech service, which combines into one offering several individual capabilities, including:

  • Speech to Text
  • Text to Speech
  • Custom Speech
  • Speech Translation
  • Custom Voice

Additionally, other APIs that will become available in US Government regions in the next few weeks include:

Azure Bot Service
Microsoft's Azure Bot Service, which helps developers build, connect, deploy and manage intelligent agents to interact naturally with users from within apps or Web sites, also received some attention at Ignite.

"Today, I'm announcing the general availability of Microsoft Bot Framework SDK V4 for C# and JavaScript, and a set of cross-platform command line tools for managing bots, bots' services, and channels," said Lili Cheng corporate VP, Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, in a blog post. "The Bot Framework Emulator V4 has a new version but remains in preview. With this release, Microsoft Bot Framework and Azure Bot Service offer a comprehensive experience to build, test, and publish intelligent enterprise-grade bots on Azure Bot Service."

Cortana
Developing enterprise projects that leverage functionality provided by Microsoft's personal intelligent assistant, Cortana, will be getting better thanks to a new Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise.

That new development platform, currently available only by invitation, will help developers create company-specific skills for Cortana, using known and trusted tools.

"At heart, we are about providing valuable assistance to users throughout their day," said Javier Soltero, the Microsoft corporate vice president in charge of Cortana, in a blog post authored by Microsoft's John Roach. "That assistance takes different forms depending on where the users are in their day and what they are trying to do. It's important for enterprises to be able to enable their workforces to use Cortana to perform company-specific tasks."

The Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise ties in to multiple AI services mentioned above, as it's powered by the Azure Bot Service and also leverages the Language Understanding capabilities of Azure Cognitive Services.

Microsoft didn't reveal specific skills to be targeted with the kit.

Microsoft 365
New AI-powered functionality in the company's Office suite of business apps help people find information, create content, analyze data and collaborate with others, Microsoft said.

For example, in Microsoft Search, it's easier to find a different documents and data from both inside and outside an enterprise without leaving the flow of work. "Under the hood, Microsoft is pulling together the power of the Microsoft Graph and AI technology from Bing to deliver experiences that are more relevant to what people are working on," Microsoft said.

Also, the company said, "Ideas in Office help people tap into the power of AI with one click of a mouse to launch intelligent recommendations in Office applications. Rolling out first for Excel and PowerPoint, the Ideas engine simplifies the user experience and helps people save time performing everyday tasks."

SQL Server 2019
The company's upcoming flagship RDBMS offering is claimed to redefine that space with new Big Data capabilities for projects ranging from OLTP to data warehousing to BI, AI and advanced analytics.

"With these enhancements, SQL Server becomes a hub for data insights that breaks down silos between database management systems, providing faster insights without moving or copying data. Spark and Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS), now built-in, enable data scientists to ingest, store and analyze vast amounts of data," Microsoft said.

About the Author

David Ramel is the editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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