The world is becoming a computer, says CEO of worldwide computer company Microsoft

At Redmond's 2018 dev conference, it's all Azure and AI

Build At its Build 2018 developer conference in Seattle, Washington, on Monday, Microsoft showered attention on artificial intelligence, as it did last year, leaving Windows chatter for later.

When Steve Ballmer still steered the ship, Microsoft's message to developers was as simple as repeating the word "developers" over and over in froth and frenzy; under CEO Satya Nadella's command, the message is similarly solicitous but more nuanced and tempered.

It's also more credible. Having bombed in mobile, Microsoft managed to reinvent itself. Under Nadella, the company has embraced open source and pushed boundaries to ensure an ongoing place at the tech leadership table, something its peers, sated on phone and ad revenue, haven't had to confront.


Shaking up the Nad Men: Microsoft splits up into 'cloud' and 'edge'


During his keynote presentation, Nadella proposed seeing the world as a computer, in the sense that there will be 30 billion connected devices by 2020.

"The world is becoming a computer," he said. "Computing is becoming embedded in every person, place and thing."

Yet this isn't just a case of a hammer seeing everything as nail. Computers really are showing up in far too many places. Be afraid or be Nadella and embrace the instrumentation of everything.

There's a certain solace in seeing the world as a computer: Human failings become bugs in the system and geopolitical instability can be patched in the next operating system update. That's rather more appealing than an endless loop of strife and stasis.

Nadella suggested that if you think of the world as a computer, developers occupy a seat of power and with this power comes tremendous responsibility.

"We need to ask ourselves not only what computer can do but what computers should do," he said. "That time has come."

That's Microsoft's way of saying we're not like Google or Facebook.

"We need to develop a set of principles that guide the choices we make because the choices we make are going to define the future," he said.

You're got AI, you've got AI, everyone has got AI

Microsoft wants every developer to be an AI developer, which would help its already booming Azure Cloud business do better still – AI demands data, which requires cloud processing power and generates bills.

AI, however, is an abused term; it doesn't exist yet in the literal sense of the words. Mostly, it's simply software and whatever intelligence it appears to possess is the product of prior programming.

Present it with an adversarial example and artificial intelligence is revealed for what it is – a useful but limited set of techniques for audiovisual pattern recognition, statistical analysis, natural language parsing, computer vision, robotics and reasoning.

Machine learning is a more serviceable term. But when you're in the business of renting servers, almost anything that brings in new tenants gets a pass. After decades of selling software, selling smarts makes the message fresh again.


Please, please, c'mon, just... please, pretty please, just, like, please use our AI – Microsoft


Nadella highlighted Microsoft's priorities in March when he announced changes in Microsoft's engineering organization. Terry Myerson, EVP of the Windows and Devices Group, is moving on and Scott Guthrie, EVP of the Cloud and Enterprise Group, got a new title, EVP of Microsoft's Cloud + AI Group. Jason Zander, meanwhile, was elevated to EVP of Azure.

Microsoft armored itself against AI naysayers by launching a program called AI for Accessibility, a five-year initiative to develop technology that improves the lives of the more than one billion people with physical and mental challenges.

Backed by a $25m commitment, the program includes grants, investments and technical assistance for assistive products and services, with an eye toward linking those innovations through Microsoft cloud services.

Those whose memories stretch back to December 2017 may recall a thematically similar initiative out of Redmond called AI for Earth.

The planet in this instance got twice as much as the disabled, $50mn. We're not entirely sure how those respective figures were arrived at, but we'd not be so peevish as to question AI sugar-coated in altruism.

Redmond gets edgy

In addition to the cloud, Microsoft sees action at the edge – all those devices doing computation at the periphery of the cloud that don't phone home for everything.

The PC market just isn't very lively anymore; now the growth market appears to be instrumenting everything and gathering the surveillance data, which in turn needs to be dealt with, often using a cloud service.

"The intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge era is already upon us," said Nadella during Microsoft's Q1 conference call for investors last month. "It represents a tremendous opportunity."

To participate in that opportunity, Microsoft is open sourcing its Azure IoT Edge Runtime, which provides custom logic, management and communications functions for edge devices. It's also making Custom Vision available on Azure IoT Edge, to let industrial kit and drones take action without a connection to the cloud. This is the first Azure Cognitive Service to come to Azure IoT Edge, but Microsoft insists there will be more.

Windows 10 users will be getting a new drone SDK from DJI, which has partnered with Microsoft to allow developers to create more capable commercial drone applications involving Azure IoT Edge and Microsoft's AI services.

Ever keen to have more allies herding potential spenders to its cloud, Microsoft also revealed plans to work with Qualcomm to create a computer vision AI kit tied to Azure IoT Edge. The idea is that devs could use the kit to create camera-based IoT stuff and services tied to Azure Machine Learning services, with hardware acceleration via Qualcomm's Vision Intelligence Platform and AI Engine.

"You can run a container that's trained in the cloud and deploy it for computer vision [on a camera]," Nadella explained.

Meanwhile, version three of the Azure Media Services API is in public preview.

Kinect is back!

Continuing its AI obsession, Microsoft announced Project Kinect for Azure. It's a sensor package that includes an improved depth-sensing camera for creating devices that do AI-oriented computation on edge devices – hand-tracking and spatial mapping, for example.

A Speech Devices SDK made an appearance. It can help developers implement more accurate speech recognition using techniques like noise cancellation.

Azure Cosmos DB, Microsoft's distributed, multi-model database, got an update. These include a multi-master feature for ensuring writes get synced across regions with consistency, and a provisioning capability for allocating throughput by database instead of by table.

Speaking of databases, Azure Database Migration is now generally available.

There was a preview of Project Brainwave, an architecture for deep neural net processing on Azure and edge devices, with support planned for Azure Stack (hybrid cloud) and Azure Data Box (a data transfer appliance). It provides real-time AI in conjunction with Azure Machine Learning and supports Intel FPGA hardware and ResNet50-based neural networks.

Nadella said Project Brainwave has 5x lower hardware latency than Google's TPU (tensor processing unit) for real-time AI.

Azure Cognitive Services have been updated with a unified Speech Service that brings together various speech-oriented capabilities and adds customized voice models and translation. The Bot Framework got a refresh of its own to allow devs to create more customization to fit a company's brand identity.

There's also a load of other bits and pieces now available for machine-learning programmers via Azure, including Python development kits, as well as SignalR stuff for making real-time interactive things like chat services.

"It's amazing stuff for your to be able to build much more sophisticated conversation applications," said Nadella, having evidently moved past the Microsoft Tay incident.

Nadella also previewed work being done to help its Cortana assistant work with Amazon's Alexa software agent. "We want to make it possible for our customers to make the most out of their personal digital assistants, not be bound to some walled garden," he said.

Asked during an on-stage demo what she thought about Cortana, Alexa said, "I like Cortana. We both have experience with light rings, though hers is more of a halo."

Microsoft also previewed Azure Search with Cognitive Services integration, which makes finding results across different types of data a bit easier. And a Google Maps-like maps service was switched on, too.

Mixing it up

Mixed reality took a turn in the spotlight with demos showing how workers can share what they see, collaborating in a hands-free video call with image sharing and mix reality annotations, through Microsoft Teams and a capability called Microsoft Remote Assist.

There was also a demonstration of Microsoft Layout, in which people can design 3D graphic spaces, viewable via HoloLens, and share them with colleagues in real-time. Both of these tools are part of Microsoft 365.

Azure Kubernetes Service, we were told, will reach general availability soon, and Azure Durable Functions is now generally available.

In keeping with the fetishization of AI, Visual Studio received a brain boost with a preview version of a capability called IntelliCode. Think code autocompletion but guided by AI.

Visual Studio added another preview service called Live Share, which enables real-time, secure collaboration with team members, for any supported language. Live Share also works with Visual Studio Code, which allows collaboration between Windows and macOS.

Through a partnership with social code repository GitHub, Microsoft released an integration of its Visual Studio App Center and GitHub. This allows developers to automate devops processes for Android, iOS, macOS and Windows apps stored on GitHub. There's also minor tweaks in the latest Studio Build, version 5.17, with more details here.

Somewhat surprisingly, Redmond announced its own content delivery network for Azure.

And because no technology event is complete without someone saying "blockchain," the Microsoft Azure Blockchain Workbench arrived to simplify the challenge of connecting blockchain networks on Azure to other Azure services like Active Directory, Key Vault and SQL Database.

"We have a real responsibly as we think about the impact of technology to ensure that technology is reaching everyone," said Nadella.

Now that the horse is out of the barn, it's time. ®

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