This is Microsoft’s AI pipeline, from research to reality

To seek the origins of Microsoft’s interest in artificial intelligence, you need to go way back–well before Amazon, Facebook, and Google were in business, let alone titans of AI. Bill Gates founded Microsoft’s research arm in 1991, and AI was an area of investigation from the start. Three years later, in a speech at the National Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, then-sales chief Steve Ballmer stressed Microsoft’s belief in AI’s potential and said he hoped that software would someday be smart enough to steer a vehicle. (He’d banged up his own car in the parking lot upon arriving at the event.)

From the start, Microsoft Research (MSR for short) hired more than its fair share of computing’s most visionary, accomplished scientists. For a long time, however, it had a reputation for struggling to turn their innovations into features and products that customers wanted. In the ’90s, for instance, I recall being puzzled about why its ambitious work in areas such as speech recognition hadn’t had a profound effect on Windows and Office.

Five years into Satya Nadella’s tenure as Microsoft CEO, that stigma is gone. Personal determination on Nadella’s part has surely helped. “Satya is–let’s put it very positively–impatient to get more technology into our products,” says Harry Shum, Microsoft’s executive VP of artificial intelligence and research. “It’s really very encouraging to all of us in Microsoft Research.” That’s a lot of happy people: more than 1,000 computer scientists are in MSR’s employ, at its Redmond headquarters as well as Boston, Montreal, Beijing, Bangalore, and beyond.

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