From humanitarian programs to new business tools: AI news from Microsoft’s Ignite conference

A mother watches the toddler sitting on her lap eating soup from a pink plastic bowl

At Microsoft’s Ignite conference in Orlando, Florida, this week, the company announced a number of new programs, tools and products aimed at showing how artificial intelligence can be used to help people in a variety of ways, whether that’s by helping humanitarian organizations or by providing tools to make machine learning more accessible.

The company announced the launch of a $40 million, five-year program called AI for Humanitarian Action. Microsoft said it will partner with non-governmental organizations and humanitarian groups to use AI to help with four key global challenges:

  • Disaster response: Support the ability to anticipate, predict and target humanitarian response efforts.
  • Needs of children: Ensure the safety and well-being of children.
  • Refugees and displaced people: Enable scalable collaboration in service of the approximate 68 million displaced people, including refugees.
  • Human rights: Accelerate breakthrough solutions to help monitor, detect and prevent human rights abuses.

The AI for Humanitarian Action program is the third program in Microsoft’s AI for Good initiative, a $115 million commitment launched last summer that also is working on ways to use AI for things like improving accessibility and environmental sustainability.

In addition to the AI for Humanitarian Action program, Microsoft unveiled a series of new and updated AI tools for developers and enterprise companies. Among the AI highlights announced at Ignite:

Cortana is getting an update that allows developers to enable the personal intelligent assistant to complete business-related tasks. The new Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise, which is currently available by invitation only, will allow enterprises to use Cortana to do company-specific tasks. This development is the start of a journey into a world where voice and natural language are the primary means of interacting with technology, according to Javier Soltero, the Microsoft corporate vice president in charge of Cortana. “In the same way you don’t have to go around teaching people how to use a smartphone because they know how to touch and swipe, we have arrived there with voice, we are finally to, ‘Okay, now what can you do?’” he said.

Microsoft also announced new capabilities for its Azure Machine Learning service, a technology that allows anyone to build and train machine learning models to make predictions from data. These models can then be deployed anywhere – in the cloud, on premises or at the edge.  At the center of the update is automated machine learning, an AI capability that automatically selects, tests and tweaks machine learning models that power many of today’s AI systems. The capability is aimed at making AI development more accessible to a broader set of customers.

Azure Cognitive Services, a set of tools developers can use to add AI functionality such as image recognition into their own products, is making updates including the general availability of its speech service. The speech service combines several AI speech capabilities, including improved models for speech recognition, capabilities for speech translation and the ability to customize models to create a unique voice.

Microsoft also announced that it has reached a milestone in text-to-speech synthesis with a production system that uses deep neural networks to make the voices of computers nearly indistinguishable from recordings of people. That capability is currently available in preview.

This speech update plays off of the momentum of the recent launch of Video Indexer, which uses AI to scan audio and video files for things like especially emotional moments or high-level topics.

In addition, the Bot Framework SDK V4 is now available. The latest release makes human and computer interactions more natural. The previous version of the framework is used by more than 300,000 developers and it supports all major programming languages.

Of course, all these new AI tools and applications require real-time access to data. Microsoft announced a series of enhancements to its data offerings, including the preview of SQL Server 2019. “This is the best time to modernize your data and maximize the insights it can generate to transform your business,” says Rohan Kumar, corporate vice president, Azure Data. “Your data has so much potential.”

AI, cloud computing and IoT technology are already having a real-world impact on many big businesses. At Ignite, Shell and Microsoft showcased a pilot project that uses Azure IoT Edge, Azure IoT Hub and Azure Databricks to identify potential safety risks at Shell’s retail gas stations in the massive stream of data captured by closed-circuit video cameras — and quickly enough for employees to respond to potential problems. It’s just one of the ways that Shell and Microsoft are collaborating to help digitally transform a company that employs 85,000 people across 70 countries, manages critical energy infrastructure across the globe and operates 44,000 retail gas station and convenience store sites worldwide. “The new possibilities in working with data over the last few years are unlocking amazing opportunities in all aspects of what we do in the company,” said Yuri Sebregts, Shell’s executive vice president for technology and chief technology officer. “Most immediately, this will help us scale solutions we’ve been developing.”

Also at Ignite, Microsoft 365 introduced a series of updates that add more AI capabilities for everyone from individual workers to IT pros.

The new AI-powered tools in Microsoft 365 include:

  • Microsoft Search, a new unified search experience that lets employees find information and items across their organization’s entire network of data.
  • Background blur in Microsoft Teams, which uses facial detection to blur the background during video calls, so people can focus on the person and not what’s behind them, and an intelligent meeting recording function that automatically generates captions and a searchable, time-coded transcript.
  • Ideas, a new feature in Office that consolidates AI features into a simplified experience across Office 365, following the user along as she creates a document and making intelligent suggestions tailored to what she is doing.
  • Data Types in Excel, which turns references to things like stock prices, company information and population data into rich entities that can be used to build interactive spreadsheets. In addition, Insert Data from Picture is a new image recognition capability that lets users convert a picture of a data table into an Excel file that can be edited, analyzed and shared.

Shortly before Ignite, Microsoft also announced a new Dynamics 365 AI offering that includes AI-driven applications for sales, customer service and market insights.