Microsoft, Other Tech Giants Race to Develop Machine Intelligence

LinkedIn purchase is latest move to acquire vast stores of data

Microsoft Corp.’s $26.2 billion deal to buy LinkedIn Corp. is the latest turn in a race by the software giant and its competitors to mine vast quantities of data—searches, emails, social networks, browsing behavior—for insights that would help their products serve and even anticipate customer needs.

Microsoft, Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc. are moving deeper into using machine learning, in which computers rapidly examine existing information in search of patterns that their products can use to understand new information as it arrives.

As Microsoft unveiled its acquisition, Apple was showing off a plan to bring advanced computer vision to its photo software. The idea: let an iPhone identify family and friends to help categorize images more easily. Last month, Alphabet unveiled Google assistant, a software helper designed to predict what users want by analyzing their behavior. It would learn their preferences so that it might offer to make dinner reservations when a restaurant was mentioned in a text message.

With LinkedIn, Microsoft gains a trove of details about the work lives, colleagues, and employers of the business social network’s 105.5 million monthly active users: a unique set of data that the software giant hopes will give it an advantage in serving business customers.

“That’s really what this next wave of technology innovation is about,” Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella said during a conference call on Monday, referring to machine learning. “But in order to be able to do that, you need data, and LinkedIn represents that.”
Microsoft, which has embraced the spread of “intelligence” throughout its offerings as an explicit goal, aims to enhance, rather than replace, human performance. Where Google’s autonomous cars stop, turn, and change routes without human intervention, Microsoft has focused on using machine intelligence to provide insights that can inform human decisions.

Forrester Research Inc. analyst Jeffrey Hammond refers to Microsoft’s approach as “augmented intelligence” to distinguish it from artificial intelligence. “It adds a whole lot of rich contextual information,” Mr. Hammond said.
The fruits of this approach are already available in the Redmond, Wash., company’s products. Last month, it revamped its SharePoint collaboration and networking program to analyze lists of meeting attendees, frequent email correspondents, collaborators on documents, and the like. The software uses the results to deliver information, such as internal reports or news articles, that might be useful to a given user.

If Microsoft can deliver on that promise, LinkedIn data will feed Microsoft products such as SharePoint, the Office productivity suite, or Dynamics sales tools, to streamline projects and pinpoint prospects. Microsoft, as part of its presentation to analysts about the deal, described a scenario in which Cortana, its digital assistant, notified a user that a coming meeting included someone who attended the same college and shared a LinkedIn connection. Then, Cortana offered to link to the attendee’s profile and share the meeting presentation.

Other tech giants have their own versions of Microsoft’s Cortana strategy. Apple’s voice-activated assistant Siri is now smart enough to work with non-Apple apps to perform tasks like calling for car service or sending messages through text networks like WeChat. Facebook is fine-tuning a concierge called M whose digital brain passes along to human attendants any requests that it isn’t sure it can fulfill. IBM’s Watson has been studying medical data in hope of helping doctors make faster, more accurate diagnoses. Inc.’s Echo, a smart household gadget in the form of a small cylinder, functions as ears and voice for Alexa, an artificial intelligence that answers spoken questions about topics like weather and traffic. Google intends to roll out Google Home, an Echo competitor that taps the search giant’s vast data repository to understand what users want.

Like Microsoft, all the tech behemoths aim to distribute intelligence throughout their products.

“The next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in an April letter to shareholders.

Artificial intelligence, though, has proven remarkably foolish at times. In March, Microsoft introduced Tay, a Twitter feed that mimicked the texting habits of an American woman aged 18 to 24. But online pranksters gamed Tay’s learning mechanism, which led the bot to tweet anti-Semitic rants.

As tech giants train their machine learning engines on ever larger stores of data, the potential grows for users to feel unnerved. To derive value from LinkedIn, Microsoft will need to keep tabs on users’ contacts, communications and activities. Its AI will be informed by updates to LinkedIn profiles, which may indicate that a user is considering a career move, and project management systems, which may contain designs of future products and other strategically sensitive information.

“How do they use that data to provide a truly convenient experience without crossing the border into creepy ones?” asks Forrester’s Mr. Hammond.

At LinkedIn, users control how they share their data. Mr. Nadella said that customers would decide what to share. But Microsoft, like its peers that occupy the center of the digital universe, is betting that those customers will let it mine their information because they’ll get value from the insights it generates.

“When it comes to machine learning and analytics, it is a tremendous opportunity for us,” Mr. Nadella said.

Article Written By: Jay Greene of Wall Street Journal