Microsoft has added a series of new AI and mixed reality services to its enterprise software product line Dynamics 365, VentureBeat reported last week, including tools based on its HoloLens augmented reality headset:
Mixed reality services from Microsoft for the workplace were first made available in preview in May and will become generally available in the coming weeks, a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat. Remote Assist allows technicians and experts within companies to see what frontline workers can see, then help them solve problems using HoloLens while they work with their hands. It’s a scenario as old as the corporate VR/AR craze itself.
Layout, another mixed reality tool, helps people visualize the placing of items in commercial or industrial settings, working with 3D models to resize, move, and quickly edit layouts with real-world scale. Companies like Chevron currently use Remote Assist today for facility inspections.
The new AI services include a program to help sales managers analyze and improve their associates’ performance, as well as new customer service and market research tools. Microsoft first began presenting the HoloLens as an enterprise tool last year, when it unveiled a second-generation design incorporating a powerful AI coprocessor. That announcement came within a week of Google unveiling the enterprise version of its own AR headset, Google Glass.
The applications for these mixed-reality devices are wide-ranging, with some companies already using them in manufacturing, shipping, and health care. One of the clearest use cases for VR and AR in the workplace is in learning, where it offers a way to immerse new employees in real-life work scenarios with drastically lower risk and expense than real-life immersion training. Walmart has been among the vanguard of large employers experimenting in this area; last year, the retailer announced plans to expand VR training to all 200 of its training centers after a successful pilot project. Now, it’s taking its commitment to VR training one step further and planning to deploy Oculus Go headsets at each of its 5,000 stores to allow for more frequent training, TechCrunch reported last week:
Google has developed a new feature for its G Suite of enterprise software that will enable managers to track whether and how employees are using various G Suite apps such as Gmail and Google Docs, the tech giant revealed this week. The tool, called “Work Insights,” is now in beta after being previewed with a small set of business customers, and will allow administrators to “gain visibility into which teams are working together and how they’re collaborating” and “review trends around file-sharing, document co-editing, and meetings to help foster connections, strengthen collaboration and reduce silos.”
To protect employee privacy, Google added, Work Insights only produces aggregated data analytics for teams of ten people or more, so admins will not be able to monitor individual employees’ use of G Suite apps, but will be able to see, for example, how many employees in a given business unit are using Google Hangouts.
The move looks like part of Google’s efforts to make G Suite more competitive against Microsoft’s enterprise technology collection, Office 365, CNBC’s Jillian D’Onfro noted in reporting the news. G Suite had 4 million paying customers as of this past February, whereas Microsoft counts 135 million active monthly commercial users of Office 365, which made its own Workplace Analytics feature generally available in 2017. Workplace Analytics also only uses aggregated and de-identified data to provide insights on a team, not individual, level.
Microsoft is planning a new, $570 million Canadian headquarters in Toronto, GeekWire reported last week, becoming the latest in a series of major US tech companies to announce large-scale investments in Canada:
The Redmond, Wash., software giant announced plans to build a massive new Canadian headquarters in Toronto, promising to invest $570 million in the facility. Microsoft expects to move into the new facility, located at 81 Bay Street, in Sept. 2020. The company will relocate its current Canadian headquarters and several other offices, dispersed through the country, to the new headquarters.
Toronto is having a bit of a moment on the global tech stage. Google sister company Sidewalk Labs is developing a plan to create an innovation district on the Toronto waterfront as a proof-of-concept for technologists who believe they can improve urban planning. Google plans to relocate its Canadian headquarters to Toronto as part of that initiative.
The very next day, Uber also revealed plans for a new Toronto office, announcing that it would spend around $154 million to build a new engineering hub there, doubling its Toronto-based tech workforce to around 500 employees. The ride-sharing startup will also be expanding its self-driving car operations there. These latest moves will further boost Toronto’s profile as one of Canada’s leading tech hubs, particularly for emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. Major tech companies have been investing in Canada at a steady clip over the past year, also including Salesforce, Alphabet’s DeepMind unit, and Facebook. Toronto is also the only non-US finalist for Amazon’s second North American headquarters.
Over the coming year, Microsoft will implement a policy requiring its suppliers in the US to provide their employees a minimum of 12 weeks paid parental leave, paid at up to $1,000 per week, Dev Stahlkopf, Corporate Vice President and General Counsel at Microsoft, announced in a blog post on Thursday:
This change applies to all parents employed by our suppliers who take time off for the birth or adoption of a child. The new policy applies to suppliers with more than 50 employees and covers supplier employees who perform substantial work for Microsoft. This minimum threshold applies to all of our suppliers across the U.S. and is not intended to supplant a state law that is more generous. Many of our suppliers already offer strong benefits packages to their employees, and suppliers are of course welcome to offer more expansive leave benefits to their employees.
Our new supplier parental leave requirement is informed by important work on paid parental leave done in states, including Washington. In 2017, Washington state passed family leave legislation, including paid parental leave. This new law will take effect in 2020. As we looked at this legislation, however, we realized that while it will benefit the employees of our suppliers in Washington state, it will leave thousands of valued contributors outside of Washington behind. So, we made a decision to apply Washington’s parental leave requirement more broadly, and not to wait until 2020 to begin implementation.
Like other major US tech companies, Microsoft relies on an undisclosed number of workers employed by third-party contractors; this so-called “shadow workforce” of contract laborers, who typically do not enjoy the same generous benefit packages as those directly employed by these companies, has been the subject of growing scrutiny and recent labor disputes, as GeekWire’s Nat Levy points out. Microsoft has faced controversy over its contingent workforce in the past, most notably in a high-profile lawsuit by “permatemps” in the 1990s. The company began putting standards on labor conditions at its US suppliers in 2015, when it began requiring that those with 50 or more employees grant a minimum of 15 days of annual paid time off to eligible employees.
Microsoft’s latest move intersection of several broad trends shaping the benefits space in the US today.
Microsoft announced on Thursday that it was launching a free version of its workplace chat and collaboration tool Microsoft Teams for groups of 300 people or fewer, the Seattle Times reported. The move puts the Redmond, Washington-based software giant in more direct competition with Slack, the startup whose popular group chat system operates on a similar “freemium” model. Previously, Teams was only available to subscribers of the Microsoft’s Office 365 suite of productivity software; the premium version remains tied to the 365 suite, but smaller organizations are now able to try out the free version and choose whether to subscribe and upgrade.
Like Slack, the free version of Teams puts some restrictions on what users can do, but the restrictions are different. Slack’s free version allows for an unlimited number of users but limits these groups to 5 GB of storage space and only lets them save and search up to 10,000 messages. Teams limits the number of free users but does not limit how many messages they can save. It also gives them more storage space than Slack: 10 GB for the group, plus 2 GB per user for personal storage. The free version also includes the platform’s built-in integrations with Microsoft Office and unlimited integrations with third-party business apps, TechCrunch adds.
As machine learning algorithms are called upon to make more decisions for organizations, including talent decisions like recruiting and assessment, it’s becoming even more crucial to make sure that the performance of these algorithms is regularly monitored and reviewed just like the performance of an employee. While automation has been held up as a way to eliminate errors of human judgment from bias-prone processes like hiring, in reality, algorithms are only as good as the data from which they learn, and if that data contains biases, the algorithm will learn to emulate those biases.
The risk of algorithmic bias is a matter of pressing concern for organizations taking the leap into AI- and machine learning-enhanced HR processes. The most straightforward solution to algorithmic bias is to rigorously scrutinize the data you are feeding your algorithm and develop checks against biases that might arise based on past practices. Diversifying the teams that design and deploy these algorithms can help ensure that the organization is sensitive to the biases that might arise. As large technology companies make massive investments in these emerging technologies, they are also becoming aware of these challenges and looking for technological solutions to the problem as well. At Fast Company last week, Adele Peters took a look at Accenture’s new Fairness Tool, a program “designed to quickly identify and then help fix problems in algorithms”:
The tool uses statistical methods to identify when groups of people are treated unfairly by an algorithm–defining unfairness as predictive parity, meaning that the algorithm is equally likely to be correct or incorrect for each group. “In the past, we have found models that are highly accurate overall, but when you look at how that error breaks down over subgroups, you’ll see a huge difference between how correct the model is for, say, a white man versus a black woman,” [Rumman Chowdhury, Accenture’s global responsible AI lead,] says.
Microsoft announced on Monday that it was buying the software development platform GitHub for $7.5 billion worth of Microsoft stock in a deal expected to close later this year:
GitHub will retain its developer-first ethos and will operate independently to provide an open platform for all developers in all industries. Developers will continue to be able to use the programming languages, tools and operating systems of their choice for their projects — and will still be able to deploy their code to any operating system, any cloud and any device. Microsoft Corporate Vice President Nat Friedman, founder of Xamarin and an open source veteran, will assume the role of GitHub CEO. GitHub’s current CEO, Chris Wanstrath, will become a Microsoft technical fellow, reporting to Executive Vice President Scott Guthrie, to work on strategic software initiatives.
Ten-year-old GitHub, based in San Francisco, is widely used among software developers to share and collaborate on code. In earlier years, Bloomberg’s Dina Bass and Eric Newcomer note, Microsoft leaders were hostile toward open-source projects like those being shared on GitHub, with co-founder Bill Gates and former CEO Steve Ballmer encouraging developers to build proprietary software for their company. Current CEO Satya Nadella has taken a notably more positive line on open source, making GitHub a more natural addition to the way the software giant currently operates. In that context, Tom Warren writes at the Verge, “it’s easy to imagine why Microsoft would want to acquire GitHub”:
Microsoft killed its own GitHub competitor, Codeplex, in December and is now the top contributor to GitHub, Microsoft now has more than 1,000 employees actively pushing code to GitHub repositories. Its popularity among developers could see Microsoft earn some much-needed trust and respect from developers. In bigger enterprises and slower moving businesses, the fact Microsoft has acquired GitHub will make it more trusted to use for projects and source control, simply because Microsoft is already trusted across many software and services by these companies.
In a blog post discussing the acquisition, Nadella insists the move is all about empowering developers: