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How the likes of Google and Apple are embracing artificial intelligence

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Artificial intelligence is the technology du jour. With some of the world’s best and brightest minds queueing up to work in the space, it’s hardly surprising tech firms across the globe have jumped on the bandwagon.

Startups such as Magic Pony and Rainbird are pouring their time and resources into the technology, which many believe has the potential to change our lives forever. But it’s not just startups that are embracing AI. Silicon Valley tech darlings such as Facebook and Google are also getting involved.

From controversial AI-powered Twitter bots through to mind-blowing research, here’s a roundup of how the world’s tech giants are interacting with the technology.

A £12m Series B, a massive ‘Google Drive’ phishing scam, Apple’s $1bn fund and more in The Week in Tech

Google

According to CB Insights, Google is the most prominent global player in artificial intelligence to date, having completed five acquisitions in the space since 2013.

The tech giant, which acquired London-based AI startup DeepMind in 2014 for a staggering £400m, is actively exploring all different aspects of machine learning; including deep learning and neural networks.

Despite the high-profile acquisition, Google has kept relatively tight-lipped about its AI ethics board, which was established after it snapped up DeepMind. To date, the board and its participants remains one of the tech sector’s biggest secrets with both Google and DeepMind refusing to divulge any details.

On the other hand, the tech giant recently made headlines with various AI product launches. Back in April, Google Calendar launched Goals, a feature that leverages machine learning to help users manage their time more effectively. More recently, it was revealed that Google is training its deep learning technology to come up with short stories based on sentences fed to it by researchers. The revelations were brought to light after Quartz found a paper published by researchers at the company, which included examples of work produced by Google Brain.

Google has also revealed its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), a custom ASIC chip built specifically for machine learning. The announcement, posted online by Norm Jouppi, a hardware engineer at the firm, explained TPU was tailored to machine learning applications, enabling the chip to “be more tolerant of reduced computational precision”.

Interestingly, the announcement confirmed more than 100 different teams at Google were using machine learning; including those working on Google Today, Street View, Inbox Smart Reply and voice search.

Microsoft

In stark contrast to Google, Microsoft’s work in the space has been more visible, even if that includes some unfortunate online blunders.

Tay, an artificial intelligence Twitter chatterbot, released by Microsoft in March, caused a stir when it began tweeting inflammatory and racist tweets after being prompted by users. As a result, the firm decided to deactivate the bot just 16 hours after launch.

Although the bot caused some embarrassment for the firm, which later apologised, Roman Yampolskiy – known for his work on behavioural biometrics and AI safety – said at the time that the its misbehaviour was understandable given that it was reacting to the offensive behaviour of other Twitter users.

Microsoft has also released Cortana – its equivalent to Apple’s Siri and Android’s Google Now – an artificial intelligence-powered personal assistant and knowledge navigator for Windows’ Phones.

More recently, Dave Coplin, Microsoft UK’s chief envisioning officer, told attendees at an AI conference in London that the technology “was the most important technology that anybody on the planet is working on today”.

Coplin went on to say AI would change how we all relate to technology and each other. “I would argue that it will even change how we perceive what it means to be human,” he added.

Microsoft’s research arm’s website also details the ways in which the firm is interacting with the space; explaining it is currently pursuing research on “automated reasoning, adaptation, and the theories and applications of decision making and learning”.

Its goals, the website adds, include: “learning from data and data mining … Our research focuses on using statistical methods for the development of more advanced, intelligent computer systems.”

Microsoft also announced its acquisition of London-based AI startup Swiftkey in February. The terms of the deal reamain undisclosed, but online reports say Microsoft may have paid $250m in cash.

Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg has seemingly made AI part of his and Facebook’s mission to connect the world.

Similarly to Microsoft, Facebook says on its research page that it is committed to advancing the field of machine intelligence “and developing technologies that give people better ways to communicate”. To do so, the firm launched an AI lab and claims to have hired some of the world’s top researchers and engineers in the field.

In terms of real-life applications, an article by Wired’s Cade Metz said Facebook engineers had designed what they referred to as “an automated machine learning engineer”. In other words, an AI system that enables the creation of artificially intelligent systems. The purpose of the experiment, Metz explained, is to be able to develop computer systems that can work independently, with minimum input from humans.

AI has also, according to the journalist, played a pivotal role in the firm’s ability to crack mobile advertisement. Following Facebook’s infamous $104bn IPO in 2012, Metz said the company had felt incredible pressure to improve the way it targeted users with relevant ads. In so doing, the company embarked on a mission to build deep neural networks and machine learning algorithms that could optimise the way in which behavioural data collected from users was used to overhaul ad targeting.

As a result, Facebook engineers built Flow. The tool, designed to help engineers build, test and execute machine-learning assembly lines, is available to every engineer within the organisation.

Finally, Zuckerberg announced at this year’s F8 developer conference that the tech firm would be opening up its Messenger platform, allowing businesses to create AI-powered chatbots to interact with their customers.

Amazon

Apple, Google and Microsoft brought us AI-powered personal assistants, but Amazon has gone one step further, by introducing the technology into a standalone device that works after being plugged into an electrical outlet in anyone’s home. Launched in 2014, Echo and Alexa were, at the time, lauded as innovative solutions.

Amazon Echo is a voice controlled intelligent home device that connects to the internet and is able to control third-party services. In so doing, it is able to answer a series of trivia questions, share the weather forecast and add items to users’ shopping lists.

More recently, Amazon became the latest in a string of tech giants to give away some of its most sophisticated technology by unveiling DSSTNE, an open-source AI framework developed to run its recommendation system.

The news comes after a Wall Street Journal report claimed Amazon was “boosting its artificial intelligence chops” last year.

According to the article, Amazon had embarked on a hiring drive for AI developers in Europe and data scientists for its New York and Berlin offices.

Like many of its counterparts, Amazon has also made acquisitions in the AI space. It acquired Silicon Valley-based Orbeus, a recognition API focused on visual recognition technology using deep learning, in April.

IBM

Watson, IBM’s AI computer system is able to answer questions posed in natural language. Developed by IBM’s DeepQA research team, the project caught the media’s attention this year after the tech giant, nicknamed Big Blue, announced it would be using Watson in its attempt to solve cyber crime “once and for all”.

IBM is now expected to spend the next year working in collaboration with eight different universities to help Watson learn how to detect potential cyber threats.

As part of this process, Watson’s cognitive system will process large amounts of information and students will be able to teach Watson by feeding it data and security reports. It is expected Watson will process as many as 15,000 security reports every month.

IBM has also made a couple of notable acquisitions in the AI arena; including the purchase of Cogenea – an AI-based virtual assistant – and AlchemyAPI, a cloud platform with natural language capabilities.

Sony

Considered to be a pioneer in artificial intelligence due to its release of AIBO, an AI robot dog, in 1999, Sony has also stepped up its activity in the artificial intelligence space in recent months.

More recently, the Japanese electronics company announced its plans to build an AI-specific business, which it hopes will eventually turn into a major revenue source. Simultaneously, Sony also made an undisclosed investment in Cogitai, a one year old California-based AI startup.

Speaking to Reuters at the time of the announcement, Hiroaki Kitano, chief executive of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, said “from an objective perspective, we [Sony] are lagging behind [other tech firms]”.

He continued: “But there are still some unexplored areas – some in cyberspace but vastly more in the physical world … and we have a number of products in the physical world. We make hardware. That’s our strength.”

According to Reuters, despite being leading force in the AI space during the late 1990s, Sony’s preeminence in the space stalled somewhat during a decade-long struggle for profitability consumer electronic businesses as it faced increasing competition from other Asian rivals.

Now, having restructured its television, laptop and mobile phone operations, Sony is hoping to regain competitiveness through artificial intelligence and is planning on releasing either a product or service in collaboration with Cogitai in 2017.

“We are considering various options, including a robot,” Kitano told Reuters.

Apple

No list of tech giants would be complete without Apple. The California-based company, renowned for its long list of consumer devices, has also dipped its toe in the AI space.

The most obvious example of this is of course Siri, Apple’s personal intelligent assistant, which uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to assist users with their queries.

In terms of acquisitions, Apple quietly snapped up a small UK startup called Vocal IQ earlier this year. Based in Cambridge, Vocal IQ, uses speech processing for improved human and machine interaction.

The move, considered by many to signal Apple’s willingness to enhance Siri’s capabilities, followed its earlier acquisition of Emotient; an emotion detection technology firm which seeks to provide greater understanding of customer sentiment.

Finally, Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder lauded AI’s potential to transform the world during an innovation summit in Brisbane, Australia. Quoted by the Sidney Morning Herald, Wozniak said: “Until recently … artificial intelligence really didn’t make much difference in life, but now we’re getting to the point where we’re getting closer to what the brain is.”

He concluded: “I looked at the brain my whole life thinking we would never understand how it’s wired, never know what consciousness is, we would never know what intuition is. And now we’re seeing so many signs that are getting so close – we speak to our phones, we can get answers.”

This article first appeared on the 11th edition of Tech City News’ tech magazine, which focused on the topic of artificial intelligence. It has been updated to reflect most recent news in the AI space. You can read the magazine online here. Subscribe to receive future editions delivered to your door for free.

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