Jul 302016
Nokia Lumia 920 has an impressive camera

Last week Microsoft quietly buried its smartphone ambitions with the announcement they would shed 1,850 jobs largely from the remains of the Nokia business they acquired four years ago.

Microsoft’s Lumia exercise was expensive for the company but even more costly in terms of missed opportunities.

Those opportunities are now in cloud computing and artificial intelligence services. Shareholders will be hoping the current CEO Satya Nadell executes a lot better on them than his predecessor did with smartphones.

Jul 282016

Currently Microsoft are running their Imagine Cup, the company’s annual student developer competition at their Seattle head office.

A regular fixture for the last 14 years, the Imagine Cup is Microsoft’s opportunity to show how emerging applications can be based upon their technologies. It tells us as much about the company’s successes as it’s missed opportunities.

With Artificial Intelligence and machine learning being the upcoming battlegrounds for the software giants, it’s not surprising many of this year’s competitors are focused on applying those technologies.

A good example of this is the Ani platform of Australia’s entrant, Black.ai, which analyses spatial movement and biometric information. In many ways this adds intelligence to smarthomes and has immediate applications in fields like aged patient care.

Black.ai’s timing is very good as patient monitoring has become an issue in their home country and veteran tech investor Mark Suster predicts tracking the flow of people is going to be a huge market.

The patient care angle of Black.ai’s  is particularly pertinent to the Imagine Cup competition as health services have been a focus in the past. Two years ago the winners were another Australian medical services platform, Eyenaemia that used a smartphone app to detect anemia.

While the Imagine Cup is a good showcase for Microsoft, the competition also shows how the market has evolved around the company. Most of the contests have a smartphone component and the cloud features heavily in all the applications, both are fields where Microsoft has either struggled or is playing catch up.

The focus on cognitive computing and artificial intelligence in this year’s event shows the company is keen to show off its prowess in the emerging battle with Amazon, Google, Apple and no doubt other companies. Microsoft will be hoping they won’t be left behind in the next wave of computing.

Apr 012016

Despite the embarrassment of their foul mouthed racist bot, Microsoft are pressing on with a move into artificial intelligence.

Ahead of this week’s Launch event in San Francisco, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella laid out his vision for the company’s Artificial Intelligence efforts in describing a range of ‘bots’ that carry out small tasks.

Bloomberg tagged Nadella’s vision as ‘the spawn of clippy’, referring to the incredibly irritating help assistant Microsoft included with Office 97.

Tech site The Register parodied Clippy mercilessly in their short lived IT comedy program Salmon Days, as shown in this not safe for work trailer. While The Reg staff were brutal in their language and treatment of Clippy, most Microsoft Office users at the time shared their feelings.

While Clippy may be making a comeback at Microsoft, albeit in a less irritating form, other companies are moving ahead with AI in the workplace.

Robot manufacturer Fanuc showed off their self learning machine a few weeks ago which shows just how deeply AI is embedding itself in industry. Already there are many AI apps in software like Facebook’s algorithm and Google’s search functions with the search engine’s engineers acknowledging they aren’t quite sure what the robots are up to.

For organisations dealing with massive amounts of data, artificial intelligence based programs are going to be essential in dealing with unexpected or fast moving events. Those programs will also affect a lot of occupations we currently think are immune from workplace automation.


Mar 262016

Microsoft Research ran an experiment last week on their artificial intelligence engine where they set a naive robot to learn from it was told on Twitter.

Within two days Tay, as they named the bot, had become an obnoxious racist as Twitter user directed obnoxious comments at the account.

Realising the monster they had created, Microsoft shut the experiment down. The result is less than encouraging for the artificial intelligence community.

Self learning robots may have a lot of power and potential, but if they’re learning from humans they may pick up bad habits. We need to tread carefully with this.

Mar 202016

Computer programming is one of the jobs of the future. Right?

Maybe not, as Japanese industrial robot maker Fanuc demonstrates with their latest robot that learns on the job.

The MIT Technology Review describes how the robot analyses a task and fine tunes its own operations to do the task properly.

Fanuc’s robot uses a technique known as deep reinforcement learning to train itself, over time, how to learn a new task. It tries picking up objects while capturing video footage of the process. Each time it succeeds or fails, it remembers how the object looked, knowledge that is used to refine a deep learning model, or a large neural network, that controls its action.

While machines running on deep reinforcement learning won’t completely make programmers totally redundant, it shows basic operations even in those fields are going to be increasingly automated. Just knowing a programming language is not necessarily a passport to future prosperity.

Another aspect flagged in the MIT article is how robots can learn in parallel, so groups can work together to understand and optimise tasks.

While Fanuc and the MIT article are discussing small groups of similar computers working together it’s not hard to see this working on a global scale. What happens when your home vacuum cleaner starts talking to a US Air Force autonomous drone remains to be seen.

Feb 282016

It’s hard to spot locations from a photograph and it’s something people can’t do this very well. MIT’s Technology Review reports Google’s researchers have developed a tool that figures out the location of an image with twice the accuracy of humans.

To illustrate their point Google have their Geoguesser game that allows people to pit their knowledge against the computer.

While this could be seen as a gimmick, it again shows how computing power is being used in areas that were seen as being immune from technology not so long ago and how artificial intelligence will be applied in various fields.

For the moment, applying artificial intelligence to seemingly trivial fields like games gives researchers to opportunity to test it before being applied to areas like cancer treatment.

As artificial intelligence advances, a whole range of existing fields are going to be disrupted – particularly in ‘knowledge industry’ fields like law, consulting and management – while new industries and occupations will arise out of these technologies.

Dec 292015
unemployed workers looking for work in depression era sydney

Which jobs can’t be done by robots asks a blog post on the World Economic Forum website.

Among the occupations discussed in the post that might be less susceptible to automation include occupational therapists, surgeons, choreographers and pre-school teachers. None of those fields are exactly large fields or accessible to the average worker.

More concerning, the report the blog post is based upon was written in 2013. Advances in automation and artificial intelligence mean the effects of technological change are almost certainly being understated.

Regardless of how automation proof individual occupations are a simple challenge for humans competing against machines is the biggest problem employers report is finding reliable and punctual workers.

Maybe we’re all putting ourselves out of jobs.