Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Slams Google DeepMind for “Playing Games”

Microsoft Cortana screenshot

The news that Google’s DeepMind program AlphaGo beat human champions in a game of Go might have impressed a lot of people, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, but Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is far less impressed.

In a comment made to audience members on the first day of the Microsoft Ignite conference being held in Atlanta, Georgia, from Sep 26 to 30, Nadella was very blunt:

“We are not pursuing AI to beat humans at games. We are pursuing AI so that we can empower every person and every institution that people build with tools of AI so that they can go on to solve the most pressing problems of our society and our economy.”

In what was obviously an unveiled dig at Google’s use of DeepMind, Nadella’s comment highlights the work Microsoft has been doing to integrate artificial intelligence in nearly everything it offers. From better spell-checking on documents to virtual assistant Cortana reaching 133 million users through Windows 10, Microsoft is pushing hard to implement practical uses for artificial intelligence technologies in big and small ways.

During the keynote presentation he also spoke about the “Cognitive APIs” that allow third-party developers to introduce Cortana’s artificial intelligence capabilities into their own software applications.

Leading up to Cortana’s Cognitive APIs, Nadella identified the next major step in artificial intelligence for Microsoft, and that is to take everything the company has learned about the advanced technologies involved in artificial intelligence and “democratize” that information so developers can use their own apps to make sense of the large amounts of data currently in existence. He also noted that the internet has been great for spreading information, but “human attention is still a limited resource.”

Nadella also spoke about the new in-house Field-programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), which are essentially chips that power the demanding needs of artificial intelligence programs. Of note is the fact that Intel is already in this space, having acquired one of the FPGA market leaders, Altera, at the end of 2015 for a hefty $16.7 billion – Intel’s biggest acquisition to date.

FPGAs are essentially programmable blocks of logic that can be connected in a variety of configurations to perform complex functions that are a basic requirement for artificial intelligence systems. In short, this is cutting edge hardware that AI ultimately depends on, and the market for this component is expected to hit $9.8 billion in 2020.

These are already being used by Microsoft in Bing Search, and they’ll soon be coming to Azure Cloud. Just to give you an idea of how fast they are, they can translate all the English pages currently published by Wikipedia in about 0.1 seconds.

Google will naturally disagree with the way Nadella has pigeon-holed them. Notwithstanding AlphaGo, DeepMind is already working with the National Health Service in the UK to develop a portal where patients can track their medical conditions through a mobile app. The company has hit a roadblock, however, after it was learned that they had access to over 1.6 million patient records, prompting this statement to the BBC by Jen Persson, a co-ordinator from campaign group Defenddigitalme:

“What was astounding to me, was the sense of entitlement that this commercial company clearly feels to access NHS patient medical records without consent and that many in the room seemed to have accepted that unquestioningly. 

Patients have been left out so far of what DeepMind has done. The firm is not at the start of ‘patient and public engagement’ as it put it, but playing catch-up after getting caught getting it wrong.”

But even bitter rivals can suddenly become friends. All major tech companies are getting their feathers ruffled from various quarters about the amount of data they collectively hold about their users, and Microsoft is already in the middle of some high-profile litigation on that front, with support coming from most of the other tech majors like Amazon, Google, Apple and even BP Oil.

As for AI, Microsoft’s artificial intelligence push is getting even more intense, judging by the amount of emphasis Nadella put on it on Day 1 of Microsoft Ignite.

Dominance in this space early on will give Microsoft a huge lead against other AI players, which now includes a long and growing list of elite software and hardware makers from around the world.

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