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Microsoft to double the size of its Montreal AI lab

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Microsoft has announced it will double the size of its Montreal research lab over the next two years.

Once the work is complete, 75 skilled engineers will work at the facility under the leadership of new director Geoffrey Gordon, a renowned AI expert.

Worldwide AI hub

While at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed the company’s investments in Canada with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In a news post, Microsoft acknowledged Montreal is becoming a “worldwide hub” for developments in AI and machine learning.

Microsoft is following several other major tech companies in stepping up its presence in the Montreal AI scene. Companies including Facebook and Samsung have recently opened new facilities in the city as it becomes one of the top global locations to source AI talent.

Microsoft said its expanded research lab will develop foundational AI systems that progress the fundamentals of the technology. This work will then help to build new Microsoft products for mainstream consumer and commercial use. Gordon’s background in both foundational and applied AI will enable the lab to work on a broad range of technologies for incorporation into Microsoft services.

“We want to be doing the research that will be infusing AI into Microsoft products today and tomorrow, and Geoff’s research really spans that,” said Jennifer Chayes, a Microsoft Research managing director and technical fellow.

AI that plans

One area the lab will focus on is the development of AI with long-term planning. AI currently struggles to combine actions into a logical plan for future execution. Although modern AI is adept at certain tasks, such as computer vision and voice recognition, it’s less capable of combining inputs, reasoning and then chaining different outcomes in response.

Microsoft’s already been working on developing new ways for AI to handle complex tasks. The additional resources available at the larger lab should enable new breakthroughs to be made in the field. This will help create smarter AI agents and information processors that have similar thought processes to humans.

With Microsoft as the latest company to invest in Montreal, Canada’s AI credentials are growing yet stronger. The company was welcomed by Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development.

“I am pleased that our government’s investment and skills continues to position Canada as a world-leading destination for AI companies and impressive researchers like Geoff Gordon,” he said.

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Canada uses blockchain to make research grants more transparent

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Blockchain
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The Canadian government has begun trialling blockchain technology as a way to improve the transparency of research grants. The National Research Council (NRC) is currently using an Ethereum-based system to publish funding information in real-time.

In a blog post, the NRC explained how blockchain technology could help to make government contracts more transparent. The blockchain’s public ledger means data recorded on the system is unalterable and open to everyone. This provides transparency into the workings of government, which in turn promotes trust.

Public-private partnership to drive pilot

To implement the trial project, the NRC has partnered with Canadian blockchain SME Bitaccess. It’s also working with the Industrial Research Assistant Program (IRAP), a body that generates a large volume of transactions each year and which would benefit from improved transparency.

Using funding from the Build in Canada Innovation Program, the NRC and Bitaccess are piloting a blockchain record-keeping system for the IRAP’s financial activities.

The program is part of the Canadian government’s wider efforts to improve transparency and utilize modern technologies. The NRC will be responsible for investigating how the blockchain could be applied to other areas of government. If the pilot proves successful, Canada could begin using blockchain more broadly to preserve public records and maintain transparency.

The trial is described as the first “real-use case” of its kind for deploying blockchain tech inside public institutions. The NRC said it expects to acquire “constructive” insights into how blockchain could be used by government bodies. Many tech visionaries see blockchain as crucial to the future of business but it’s still a new concept to most official organisations.

“These are early days yet, but the experiment is expected to provide constructive insight into the potential for blockchain technology and how it may be used for more open and transparent function of public programs,” said the NRC. “This experiment also marks an important step forward for the technology and a commitment by the Government to support emerging Canadian innovation.”

From cryptos to conservation

The blockchain is currently best known as the infrastructure supporting cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. In this scenario, the blockchain records every transaction on a decentralised public ledger. As the blockchain is immutable and distributed across computers around the world, the data stored within is always secured against external tampering.

These qualities are also what makes the blockchain concept attractive to organisations that need to store data transparently. The Canadian government’s initiative is just one example of how the tech could be used. Other recent blockchain-based projects have included schemes aimed at sports fans and unsustainable practices in the tuna industry.

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Publicis Groupe partners with Microsoft to build new AI platform for 80,000 employees

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Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (left) and Publicis Groupe CEO Arthur Sadoun announce AI partnership
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Publicis Groupe has announced it is partnering with Microsoft to create a “disruptive” AI platform to digitally transform its operations. The organization will define the platform’s architecture, with Microsoft then providing the tech to build it.

Called Marcel, Publicis Groupe intends the AI-powered network to achieve three main aims:

  • Curation of insights
  • Providing employees access to these insights
  • Connecting staff to boost problem solving.

Together, these tasks aim to deliver efficiency improvements to the company’s internal operations. Publicis Groupe currently employs more than 80,000 people who will use the new platform to connect with each other and organize information.

How it works:

Marcel will curate Publicis Groupe’s collective knowledge acquired through its business operations. This information will then be available to employees, allowing workers to access all the insights harvested by the company.

For example, an employee looking for info in one business might be shown an insight that was originally created in another operation. If it’s relevant to the task, Marcel will still present the data to the employee.

Marcel will also make individual connections between all 80,000 Publicis Groupe staff. This is intended to let employees access relevant support resources as and when they need them. As soon as a staff member encounters a problem, they could use Marcel to find an employee capable of providing immediate assistance.

Marcel to run on Azure

The platform is a sizeable initiative that Publicis Groupe believes will transform the way it operates. The design of the system is already being readied for Microsoft to implement using its cloud resources and AI capabilities. Marcel will run on Microsoft’s Azure cloud network with integrations into Office 365 for business insights.

“Marcel is a crucial step in Publicis Groupe’s commitment to radically change our industry, for the good of our clients and our people,” said Arthur Sadoun, Chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe. “It’s why we’re thrilled to be able to draw on Microsoft’s ground-breaking talent, capabilities and resources in artificial intelligence, to build the platform of the future, today.

Publicis Groupe has been preparing Marcel’s architecture for several months. It first unveiled the platform last year while it was still in the design phase. The appointment of Microsoft as the project’s technical partner means Publicis Groupe is now progressing towards the introduction of Marcel to its employees and clients.

The finished solution will be developed over the next few months. Publicis Groupe and Microsoft will present it at the Viva Technology show in Paris in May.
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60% of enterprises to rely on cloud SaaS by 2019

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Digital transformation is creating a “new world order” in IT as more companies transition to the cloud, according to a new report from 451 Research.

Before the end of 2019, 60 percent of enterprises will have abandoned their on-premises systems to operate primarily via SaaS.

IT as-a-service

451 Research explored the growth of “as-a-service” IT in its new Voice of the Enterprise survey. As reported by TechRepublic, the company found digital transformation is rapidly taking hold inside businesses. With firms already trying to migrate away from legacy on-premises tech stacks, cloud providers including Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure are enjoying a boom time.

According to 451 Research, AWS and Microsoft still account for most SaaS and cloud strategic partnerships:

  • 35 percent of organizations expect Microsoft to become their most strategic partner by 2019
  • 17 percent saying they’ll be allied with Amazon

Other providers, such as Oracle and Google, are also making gains as cloud SaaS becomes the IT stack of choice.

A difference of priorities

The drive towards SaaS appears to be universal across industries.

Companies are prioritizing different areas of tech though, with some looking towards emerging platforms while others experiment with fintech and data.

Across all enterprises, business intelligence and analytics was seen to be the single biggest priority with 45 percent of survey respondents expressing an interest.
Other priorities identified were:
  • 29 percent say AI and machine learning
  • 12 percent say big data, software networking and containerized services
  • 7 percent say blockchain, edge computing, and biometrics

This could be because successful use of these technologies can be dependent on other priorities, such as serverless computing and business intelligence.

Firms will be able to start trialling more emerging forms of technology as they complete their transition to cloud platforms.

Ideas are entering deployment

“The survey suggests that many – but certainly not all – organizations are finally reaching the point where they can focus on endeavours that help differentiate the business, instead of merely keeping the lights on,” said Melanie Posey, Research Vice President and General Manager, Voice of the Enterprise at 451 Research.

“In 2018 we expect to see much of this effort focused around a new set of approaches to data optimization and analysis,” she says.

Over the next couple of years, hype around new technologies may begin to translate into actual deployments.

Digital transformation takes time and requires close business alignment to succeed. That 60% of enterprises are approaching cloud reliance shows that adoption of digital strategies is well underway, but most firms haven’t yet achieved all their aims.

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