Microsoft’s AI Unit Grows to 8,000 Employees in One Year

Microsoft’s AI Unit Grows to 8,000 Employees in One Year

The Microsoft AI and Research group, which CEO Satya Nadella founded a year ago as the software giant’s fourth engineering division, has grown its staff by 60 percent in its first year—from 5,000 to 8,000—representing the size of Microsoft’s bet that AI is the future of computing technology, GeekWire’s Todd Bishop reports:

The move reflects Nadella’s belief in “democratizing AI,” making it available to any person or company, and radically changing the way computers interact with and work on behalf of humans. …

During the past year, Microsoft has introduced new artificial intelligence and machine learning features and services in products including Office, Bing, Azure and programmable AI chips for the company’s data centers. The company has also released standalone AI programs, such as a Seeing AI app that helps visually impaired people better sense and understand the world around them.

On top of the company’s own AI division, Microsoft’s investment arm also launched a dedicated fund last December to invest in AI startups. The AI startup scene has been increasingly in the tech giants’ sights, both as investment targets and as opportunities to acqui-hire scarce and valuable AI experts.

The rush by Microsoft and other tech giants like Apple, Google, Amazon, and to grab up all the AI talent they can get has even led to concerns that big companies are monopolizing the market and making it impossible for smaller, less wealthy companies to afford AI researchers and developers. This includes not only Silicon Valley titans but also major legacy automakers, who now find themselves competing with companies like Uber and Google to build and market AI-powered autonomous vehicles.

The field being so new, critics of this scramble for talent worry that big, rich tech companies will effectively prevent AI from developing outside the confines of their organizations, such that contrary to Nadella’s vision of “democratizing AI,” it becomes impossible to work on it outside a major company like his own. Furthermore, with industry paying top dollar for this talent, universities can’t compete, raising fears that too few AI experts will remain in the academy to teach this emerging technology to the next generation.

On the other hand, business leaders like Nadella appear well aware of the dangers of developing AI in secret, and are talking up a more open approach to their work in this field. The impetus to maximize access is also the focus of initiatives like OpenAI, a nonprofit research project founded by Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Tesla’s Elon Musk to develop AI technology and release it for use in the public domain.