How ‘alfred’ AI solution helps thyssenkrupp Materials Services optimize its logistics network

Alfred Krupp founded his company in 1811. Now, over 200 years later, he is the namesake and inspiration for an artificial intelligence solution built by thyssenkrupp Materials Services (tkMX), one of Germany-based thyssenkrupp AG’s strategic business areas – and the largest materials distributor and service provider in the western world.

The “alfred” AI solution, powered by Microsoft Azure, helps the company analyze and process more than two million orders per year and better serve its 250,000 global customers.

Though alfred has been in place for just under a year, the solution is already helping tkMX optimize its logistics network – allocating materials to the right location much faster, minimizing transport volume and enhancing usage of the company’s transport capacity.

Axel Berger, head of the Digital Transformation Office, thyssenkrupp Materials Services.
Axel Berger, head of the Digital Transformation Office, thyssenkrupp Materials Services.

Transform caught up with Axel Berger, head of digital transformation at tkMX, to hear more about how alfred is changing the business.

TRANSFORM: Tell me about alfred and why tkMX developed it. What business challenges were you facing?

AXEL BERGER: We are a wholesaler, so data insights and data algorithms are possibly one of the strongest levers we have to improve our business. We had a lot of data that we weren’t using before, for three main reasons.

First, we didn’t really have the expertise to work on specific data science topics – we had the data, but it wasn’t always available. Second, data quality was an issue. And third, we lacked the technology to store data in different formats to use it and make it available in one central location on a massive scale. We also lacked the related tools to really analyze it, visualize it and finally, build algorithms out of it that could be deployed in different scenarios.

There are many possible use cases for wholesalers, and it took us a long time to pinpoint the use case that we should implement first. The major topic we’ve focused on is network optimization. How can we optimize, for example, transport costs or our supply network? How can we reduce the stock that is delivered from A to B without sacrificing our service levels? So the first project that we’ve worked on is network simulations within our German trade network.

It’s important to note that alfred is growing through its use cases. We didn’t create a huge global platform that could do everything. The first use case requires a specific amount of data, computing power and certain tools. But with additional use cases that we are now implementing, alfred is growing.

thyssenkrupp Material Services' alfred AI solution.
thyssenkrupp Material Services’ alfred AI solution.

TRANSFORM: I understand you developed alfred internally. Can you tell us a little about that?

BERGER: Alfred came to life in early 2018. The biggest challenge was definitely data availability. You can have the greatest technology, the best tools, but the biggest challenge is to get quality data. Another challenge is to have the domain knowledge, the expertise in the specific topic to really make it relevant.

Everybody’s thinking that if you just use data and artificial intelligence, in the end this artificial intelligence will give you the insights that you don’t know yet. But that’s not happening. It’s about having the right data of the right quality, the expertise and the domain knowledge on a specific topic, and the technology to run it. Technology is the easy part, because nowadays there is someone like Microsoft with the technology. But to bring data and domain knowledge into the project and to understand the use case and the questions you are trying to answer, that is the hardest part.

TRANSFORM: Can you walk me through what alfred might do over the course of one day?

BERGER: There are so many things that alfred can do! Alfred dynamically tells us from which site we should ship which material to which customer. Alfred optimizes our stock levels. Alfred tells us what the perfect price for a specific customer for a specific product is. Alfred visualizes and tells us which customers are profitable, and which customers are not.

Alfred can help us build a predictive maintenance model for our machinery, and tell us which machine is about to break. Alfred also helps us to optimize our supply network in terms of physical sites – where should we open the next site or close it down, and which materials should be subbed somewhere else. It helps us to get better purchase prices because it helps us in negotiations and the bundling of materials that we want to purchase. These are all current or potential use cases.

TRANSFORM: I understand it’s still evolving, but what is the biggest benefit alfred has had on your business?

BERGER: We handed over decision-making to alfred (a machine) that relies on data. One of the taglines that we use for alfred is “intelligence in each transaction,” which means that we want to build decision engines. Alfred already delivered the first decision engine: The system tells us from which location the customer is to be supplied – taking into account all relevant frame data. That was our first decision engine, you could say.

TRANSFORM: What has been the employee reaction to alfred? Have they embraced alfred, or was there some resistance early on?

BERGER: People weren’t resistant to alfred, because right away we could show them how alfred would help them in their daily work, and the benefits we’d gain. With the use case we’ve been working on, alfred doesn’t imply any layoffs or redundancies. It is purely optimizing the way we are working, and helping to enhance the impact our employees are driving. So alfred is seen positively.

Employees collaborate in a thyssenkrupp Materials Services warehouse.
All company data can be combined on one platform with alfred.

TRANSFORM: Did you do any training to prepare employees for alfred?

BERGER: Yes, absolutely. We helped them, trained them, involved them in the process very early. We trained them in the tools. What we are also planning is to deploy data labs, small versions of alfred, so people working on a specific data problem can use alfred to solve their own problems with just a push of the button. We teach them how to do this – how to use Microsoft Power BI, for example, to visualize their own data. That helped a lot because they started to work with data and to better understand what it’s all about and how it can be utilized.

TRANSFORM: How else has alfred helped your employees achieve more and optimized their work?

BERGER: Alfred has helped employees by enabling them to simulate tkMX’s network setup, which was extremely difficult before because our network is extremely complex. It has helped with data availability – the employees have much more data that they can now access themselves, without involving anybody from data warehousing. And obviously by increasing data transparency.

TRANSFORM: Have new roles or opportunities opened up to support alfred?

BERGER: Yes, of course. Roles like data engineering, data architecture, data science, solution designers – these are all new roles that we staff now.

TRANSFORM: What advice would you give other companies that are considering launching an AI initiative?

BERGER: I’d like to shift the focus away from the buzzword “AI” and better discuss what’s behind it. I don’t believe that there is an artificial intelligence as such. We have focused algorithms.

In other words, what I would recommend is to calm down and don’t be afraid of AI, because the methods are 60 years old. What has changed are the opportunities that advanced technologies such as cloud and edge computing provide and the pace at which they evolve. So, businesses need to get used to these new technologies, and use technology that is easy to handle – like Microsoft Azure. With Azure we can quickly launch applications that can be used for data aggregation, manipulation and analysis with the click of a button, with only a few people in the beginning.

To start, I would recommend taking data, searching for your first use cases, and just building them without engineering them forever. Clarify the questions you want to answer. Don’t believe in overarching algorithms that will solve the problem of finding the question, the use case. Because otherwise everybody is expecting results for something that you don’t even know is a problem.

tkMX infographicTRANSFORM: Based on your experience, what concerns or rewards do you see for society as AI becomes more ubiquitous?

BERGER: Again, I would say calm down and get in touch with the methods and technologies behind AI. People are fearing things they don’t know. If you get in touch with it and understand what’s really behind AI, then I think it’s easier for people to understand that we are far away from real artificial intelligence. We see specific use cases, specific technologies to solve specific problems, but nothing like a mastermind.

It’s important to talk about AI and engage in the public debate, because with the evolving technology around machine learning and AI, there are questions to answer, including both ethical and legal questions. For example, the much-used example of an autonomous car. How do we cope as we give more and more autonomy and decision-making capacity to machines?

I studied mechatronics some 25 years ago. With mechatronics you were already talking about cyber-physical systems and programming and automizing machines. So IoT is nothing new. It’s just the technology has evolved and that gives us new opportunities.

When you look at artificial intelligence, the methodologies are out of the 1940s, 1950s – neural networks, for example. It’s nothing new. It’s all about cheaper storage, more computing power and better connectivity, but also about standardization and harmonization of data. And if you come back to that point, you realize it’s feasible to cope with it, because we’ve been able to cope with it for many years.

A thyssenkrupp truck travels on a highway.
AI will help thyssenkrupp Materials Services efficiently manage their logistics network.

TRANSFORM: You talked about what alfred is doing now. In 10 years, where do you want the platform to be?

BERGER: Technology is evolving so fast, it’s hard to foresee. Do you know the saying, ‘The appetite comes with eating’? It’s like when you’re working on a project, you’re finding new data insights, new data points that give you the motivation to go to the next step. So I am convinced there will be so many more use cases in the future that I cannot foresee right now.

I will learn, we all will learn, the machine will learn. We will get more and more data created out of the data that we already have – other data sources, third-party data and so forth. So right now, I cannot foresee all the use cases we will see in the future. We will work under one paradigm, which is ‘Intelligence in each transaction’. Over time alfred will also take decisions in our ERP system automatically. In average transactions that we do, we would like to have more intelligence, and alfred will help us with that.

TRANSFORM: Is there anything you would like to add?

BERGER: I’m a great believer in removing the mystique of buzzwords like AI and focusing on what’s behind it instead – helping people and companies understand the technologies and methods that help us make our businesses as well as our personal lives easier and better.

It’s part of my role as the CDO, but I also believe that digitalization is a bunch of buzzwords. If you ask someone at a conference what you really mean by digitalization, most people will get very thin in their answers. Why?

Because they don’t really know, because they are looking at digitalization from a huge height. And I think if you really want to go beyond the buzzwords, you really need to go into the use cases and the business, and you really need to redefine the opportunities. So I am trying hard to get out of these buzzwords and really get down to the use cases.

Top photo: thyssenkrupp Materials Services receives around 14 million order items annually. With alfred, these can be efficiently processed and analyzed. (All photos courtesy of thyssenkrupp Materials Services)


Louisville signs alliance with Microsoft to accelerate city’s AI practices, digital transformation

Image of Louisville Metro HallImage of Louisville Metro Hall

At Louisville’s Entrepreneur Center, Mayor Greg Fischer announced a three-year digital alliance with Microsoft to boost the region’s digital transformation and accelerate AI practices. The remarks were part of a kick-off event for a weekend of start-up activities at the center, which supports the growth of local tech companies. The alliance will focus on strengthening the region’s ability to navigate its major industries’ digital transformation by skilling the population in the key digital fronts of the future: artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and data science.

Upon signing Mayor Fischer said, “Artificial intelligence is the next frontier in technology, and through this collaboration with Microsoft, we will prepare our workforce for the tech revolution and create economic opportunity, while not losing sight of the need for equity within economic growth. We are excited to collaborate with Microsoft to ensure Louisville residents and businesses are ready for the future economy.”

With a physical hub in the Entrepreneur Center in Louisville’s Innovation District, the alliance will encompass public events, technology investment, and skills training for all ages throughout the greater Louisville area, with a population of approximately 620,000 people.

Microsoft will collaborate with the city of Louisville, the Brookings Institute, and the University of Louisville as well as other local partners in this wide-reaching public-private initiative to increase digital skills along the full continuum of the educational pipeline.

Also presenting at the event was Louisville Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology Grace Simrall who said, “In essence, the goal of this collaboration is to create a regional hub, a center of gravity for AI and IoT.”

A changing landscape

In recent years, some 12% of jobs in the Louisville region have been in manufacturing, employing over 250,000 workers. Some 285,000 people in the region are currently working in healthcare and education. As digital transformation brings increased efficiency to these and other industries, there will be a growing demand for workers who command strong digital skills. In addition to manufacturing and healthcare, AI will bring new opportunities in fields ranging from public safety to smart building design and construction. The alliance will help bridge the digital divide to help communities thrive in the coming job market.

Focus on AI

The digital alliance will work to create a comprehensive strategy focusing on the impact of AI, IoT, and data science and on how to help communities adapt to them. All components of the digital alliance will emphasize building people’s agility with these technologies. Four fellows will be sponsored to act as ambassadors for the city’s AI initiatives within industry and non-profit organizations. Public events will include ideation and design-thinking workshops and symposiums to explore what an AI future looks like.

Full lifecycle educational pipeline

The digital alliance will take a multi-pronged approach to reach people at various points along the continuum of job readiness, from familiarizing children with the basic concepts of digital literacy to empowering current or returning members of the workforce to reskill and upskill for the new economy.

Empowering youth

The alliance will provide virtual and in-person programs for youth in the schools and during public events activities for the entire K-12 and P-20 learning spectrum. Programs will include one-time public events such as youth esports and robotics competitions and longer programs including the following.

  • YouthSpark Live events bring young people together to plan their futures. Students identify necessary skills, learn how technology fits in, and get connected to programs that will help them get where they want to go. The events focus on three key areas: employment, careers and entrepreneurship.
  • DigiGirlz teaches middle and high school girls about technology careers, connects them with STEM industry professionals and Microsoft employees, and lets them participate in hands-on computer science workshops.
  • DigiCamps provides the same experience of developing and learning about cutting-edge technologies as DigiGirlz for both girls and boys.

Training the workforce

The digital alliance will coordinate and host digital literacy workshops for parents, transitioning members of the workforce and veterans to expand digital literacy skills in a consistent, predictable manner using Microsoft’s Digital Literacy curriculum. The training, which is available in 30 languages, is online and downloadable. In addition, the three training levels, from basic to advanced, are developed to be self-directed and self-paced.

The digital literacy curriculum starts with the absolute basics of computer and software use and progresses to larger issues of online safety and digital lifestyles. Microsoft will provide resources for Train the Trainer sessions for Microsoft certifications through the Digital Literacy curriculum.

Developing thought leadership

The alliance will host a high-level AI, IoT, and Data Science Summit in Louisville in the coming year, corporate AI briefings, and business roundtables. Executive briefings will be held at the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center in Redmond, WA, to support corporate digital transformation with directors and cabinet officials focused on innovation, AI, cybersecurity, and digital transformation.

To tap into and further grow the capacity of existing tech leaders, the digital alliance will host at least three start-up and tech hackathons focused on civic innovation. Hackathons connect the city with local tech leaders, start-ups, partners, and technology thought leaders to explore solutions to local challenges. The Civic Innovation hackathon will challenge participants to use design thinking and technology to address topics such as public safety, security, smart city, transportation, and education. Microsoft will aid with program development, session facilitators, and speakers.

For more details about the Louisville digital alliance, please see the press release from the Office of Mayor Greg Fischer.

Learn more about how Microsoft is empowering digital transformation and innovation for state and local governments at the Microsoft Smart Cities website.

Learn more about this and other initiatives from the Brookings Institute.

To stay on top of the latest research on the potential for AI in the public sphere, access Microsoft’s resource guide to AI in government.


Learn more about Microsoft’s Airband Initiative to connect rural America.

Gain new insights into how to get started with digital skills.

See how cities and states are transforming with intelligent technology


How AI and satellites are used to combat illegal fishing

Fishing is a way of life for coastal communities around the world. An estimated four million fishing vessels sail the world’s oceans, providing fish for a global seafood market valued at over $120 billion.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of fish,” says Nick Wise, CEO of the nonprofit organization OceanMind. “There are three billion people in the world who rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, mostly in developing nations. Twelve percent of the world’s population relies on the wild-capture seafood industry directly or indirectly for their livelihoods.”

Overfishing — when fish is caught faster than stocks can replenish — is a significant factor in the decline of ocean wildlife populations, not least because of the bycatch of other marine life such as turtles and cetaceans. Each of these creatures is an important part of ecosystems and the biodiversity of the ocean.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates one-third of all fish stocks are now overfished and are no longer biologically sustainable.

“A collapse in fish stocks and a failure to manage fishing sustainably,” says Wise, “would lead to a food security crisis and result in significant poverty around the world.”

To fight back against this overfishing, OceanMind is using the power of AI to map data and then feeding that information to government authorities to help catch perpetrators.

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satellite data map

Smart tracking

Regional, national and international regulations are used to manage fishing efforts and can include restrictions on fishing out of season, using banned gear or techniques, or catching more than a set quota.

There are many ways of trying to catch those flouting the law, such as patrol boats, on-board cameras, and the remote electronic monitoring of discards.

However, the vastness of the ocean makes the job difficult.

OceanMind’s system currently tracks thousands of boats, with the capability of tracking millions, across the globe by gathering data from a wide range of sources, including collision-avoidance transponders aboard boats; radar images; satellite imagery; and cellphone signals. Analyzing these enormous datasets is beyond the capability of any one person. OceanMind has developed machine-learning algorithms that predict the type of fishing behavior based on vessel location, and flags suspicious and potentially illegal activity such as fishing too close to the shore.

But the system can’t tell on its own whether anyone is breaking the law.

“The difference between legal and illegal fishing is simply whether or not the vessel had a license to do what it did in that place, at that time, and in that way,” says Wise. “That’s what makes combating illegal fishing challenging: One vessel making a particular maneuver might be legal, another vessel doing the same thing next to it might be illegal.”

OceanMind’s fisheries experts verify the alerts flagged by AI and coordinate closely with the relevant authorities, who can then decide whether to investigate further. The organization already has partnerships with governments, including Thailand’s, which can then target resources to catch offenders.

Real-time advances

Until now, OceanMind has used onsite servers to process the data that comes in every day. “We were basically running a day behind,” explains Wise. “We reviewed things that were happening yesterday.”

Through a Microsoft AI for Earth grant, OceanMind is moving its data analytics to the Microsoft Azure cloud. “The collaboration with Microsoft is going to bring all of that data through our system much more quickly and apply the AI in near real time.”

That transformation will make a big difference to enforcement. Real-time monitoring will help authorities plan patrols that can catch illegal fishing as it happens.


AI takes the pain out of car insurance in India

India’s drivers benefit as artificial intelligence transforms the business of policies and claims

Auto insurance is becoming a lot easier and quicker – with the help of artificial intelligence and smartphones.

India is one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing auto insurance markets – but until now, the sector has had to rely on traditional ways to renew lapsed policies or make repair claims. Both services have required inspectors to physically look over vehicles and make damage assessments.

In a country with more than 230 million vehicles and 1200 auto accidents every day, scheduling inspections and getting approvals can keep cars and policyholders off the road for days or longer. A more convenient way was needed.

To ease the pain, ICICI Lombard has partnered with Microsoft to develop India’s first AI-enabled car inspection feature in its mobile app, “Insure.” The app allows customers to buy or renew policies anytime, anywhere. And, soon it will also simplify the process of making a repair claim.

In case of lapsed policy instead of a physical inspection, customers can simply take images of their vehicle and upload them with Insure. The app then uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to divide the images into frames and identify the various parts of the car to look for damage. In most cases the AI module can make a judgement very quickly, reducing the time from days to mere minutes.

Proving it’s possible

“We had been envisioning something like this for a long period of time,” says Girish Nayak, Chief Customer Service, Operations & Technology, for ICICI Lombard. “We were not really successful working with some start-ups. Therefore, we approached Microsoft to see if we could do this together.”

The two companies started collaborating where software engineers from both companies met and worked on a prototype.

“The prototype gave us confidence that something like this is possible,” said Nayak.

Using the Azure platform, computer vision, and machine learning (ML) technologies, they refined the process until the accuracy was fit for purpose.

The feature was launched in December of 2018 and has worked as expected. Nayak said, “real time renewals of expired policies makes the customer experience consistent and convenient.”

A person self inspecting car insurance through a mobile app

Real time renewals of expired policies makes the customer experience consistent and convenient.

With the app, insurance personnel are more productive as they no longer have to be physically present to inspect vehicles and can focus on less repetitive tasks. With improved efficiency, customer satisfaction has also increased considerably.

According to a new study by IDC Asia/Pacific and Microsoft, “Future Ready Business: Assessing Asia’s Growth Potential Through AI”, organizations in India that have adopted AI have seen tangible improvements of 22% better customer engagement and 21% more productive employees. Further improvements of at least 2.1 times are forecasted over a three-year horizon.

Expanding AI in auto insurance

Renewing policies online has proven to be successful — the company is currently processing between 150 to 200 cars per day — but as Nayak pointed out, using AI for renewals is just a “stepping stone” for the company. AI is a major thrust for the company, and they are very near to using AI to process repair claims as well. The solution is currently in beta stage and is expected to be launched in 2019.

A person clicking snapshot of a car's tyre

AI will soon assess images of damage uploaded by the customer and provide an estimated repair cost within seconds

When a customer’s vehicle is damaged in an accident, they must surrender it to a service center so a service engineer can assess the damage and provide an estimate for repair. Then, an insurance personnel examines both the car and the estimate, and either approves, rejects or modifies individual parts of the estimate.

Compare that to the new, AI-driven process; a customer will use the app to take photographs of car’s damage. Once uploaded, the system’s deep learning model and computer vision identifies in real time all the parts of the vehicle, like roof, window or bumper and then spots all the different types of damage – be it scratch, dent, crack, and so on. Most importantly, the app replies with an estimated cost quickly using historical data.

With AI, the company aims to complete simple claims in days, instead of weeks when the module is launched towards the end of 2019.

Improving customer experience and business outcomes

The advantages to the customer are clear. They can file claims whenever and wherever is convenient and will receive estimates much faster than before.

The app is also valuable to ICICI Lombard from a business perspective. Automating the process reduces the possibility of inaccurate assessments due to human error. And, increased efficiency and productivity improves the bottom line.

A person inspecting damage on the rare end of a car

AI is expected to free up insurance inspectors’ time to focus on complex claims like head on collisions and spend quality time with vehicle owners to help reduce their stress

The role of the human insurance inspectors is changing as well. AI is good at quickly handing the routine claims. That allows insurance inspectors to attend to more complex claims where their experience really matters, like those that involve lot of interior damage, for instance.

Nayak said inspectors are being trained in new skills. “With AI coming in, it frees up their time to prioritize complex cases and personal customer interaction, as well as providing career paths in learning new techniques as well.”

With the launch of the app, the company aims to substantially increase employee productivity and customer satisfaction.

As AI remakes their auto insurance business, ICICI Lombard is keen to employ the technology wherever it aligns with their vision of increasing efficiency and improving customer experience. Currently, they are working towards launching similar AI-powered apps for their health and marine insurance customers.


AI Business School launches curriculum for government agencies

More than 140,000 business leaders have immersed themselves in AI Business School since Microsoft introduced the online leadership series two months ago. Now, the school is adding materials designed specifically for government agencies.

The goal: To help government leaders, policy makers and administrators learn more about how technologies infused with artificial intelligence can help their constituents, particularly when it comes to the delivery of important services ranging from applying for a construction permit to getting access to health assistance.

On May 28, AI Business School will launch a new learning path that describes important considerations and potential opportunities for government organizations as they evaluate how AI can help governments become more agile, consistent and efficient, and also better deliver services to their citizens.

“Leaders in the public sector are often faced with unique challenges when considering how to apply AI to improve the speed and quality of the government services they offer their citizens,” says Mitra Azizirad, corporate vice president for Microsoft AI marketing. “The opportunities and scenarios for AI in the public sector are ever increasing, which can make deciding where and how to apply it quite daunting. This is precisely why we expanded Microsoft’s AI Business School to now include a specifically tailored and targeted public sector curriculum to help these leaders address their citizens’ unique needs.”

Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s vice president for government, said the new government learning path is a win for both government agencies and the constituents they serve.

“Helping governments reach and serve people through cloud services is a key priority for us,” Salcito said. “Citizens want to be able to interact with governments in real time and from any device. AI enables a two-way conversation where citizens can contribute information and receive insights in return.”

“It’s really thinking about 21st century workforce skills,” he added. “The fact is that government workers across the board – and especially decision makers – don’t necessarily have that familiarity or depth on AI. This new learning path is a way to get them introduced to the concept and to understand why it’s important in the context of government work.”

The new content for government leaders will include:

  • A video lecture from Peter Zemsky, Eli Lilly chaired professor of innovation and strategy at INSEAD graduate business school, on why and how governments can identify the right opportunity to use AI.
  • A case study illustrating how the city of Espoo, Finland, is working to modernize life for its residents.
  • A demo showcasing how governments can use intelligent bots to help citizens access resources.

With the assistance of AI, experts say governments can do things like find ways to reduce the time people spend waiting in line for services or find ways to improve public safety.

AI tools also can help government organizations analyze data to find better ways of helping constituents. They also can be used to create intelligent assistants that get people answers to simple questions faster, freeing up government employees to handle more complex requests.

For example, the city of Espoo has been using AI to analyze how its citizens access services, with the goal of figuring out how to serve people more efficiently and effectively. Päivi Sutinen, Espoo’s director of city-as-a-service development, said the experimentation revealed that by using AI and customer data more effectively, they were able to allocate resources more efficiently. That’s helping put the city on a path towards a more sustainable future.

“We launched our experiment because we wanted to find out whether AI can help us target our services proactively,” Sutinen said. “The answer is a strong yes.”

Microsoft says governments of all sizes can benefit from the AI Business School’s new learning path.

“We believe this course is valuable for government decision makers at all levels — from small municipalities to large cities,” said Salcito. “The beauty of artificial intelligence technologies is their scalability.”

Jaime Pereña is a director of AI marketing at Microsoft.



Microsoft releases new book: ‘The Future Computed: AI and Manufacturing’

Today, Microsoft is releasing The Future Computed: AI and Manufacturing. This new book provides an in-depth look at how artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming the manufacturing sector by optimizing digital operations and driving efficiencies, enabling new products and services, and allowing for safer work environments. The book also offers a timely look at how society can respond to some of the challenges AI creates, and the need to develop new laws and regulations to address workforce disruption and develop AI in an ethical and responsible manner.

Written by Greg Shaw – co-author of Hit Refresh with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and The Ability Hacks about technology for people with disabilities – this book is the second in a series that began with the release last year of The Future Computed: Artificial Intelligence and its role in society.

In an era when digital technology is changing almost every aspect about how people live, work, play, and learn, we believe it is important to think carefully about the complex questions that AI raises. Through our Future Computed series, we hope to encourage a broad set of conversations about how AI can empower people in a trusted and respectful environment that benefits everyone.

We decided to focus the second Future Computed book on manufacturing because the industry plays such a central role in the global economy, and because, as in previous industrial revolutions, it is once again at the forefront of adopting new transformational technologies.

This means manufacturing is one of the industries that is leading the way in exploring the full potential of AI. It also means manufacturers already find themselves responding to some of the challenges of AI — challenges like how to optimize processes to keep up with the new speed of business, how to ensure their existing and incoming workforce has the right skills to build and leverage AI, and how to create the right organizational culture to realize the benefits of data-driven decision making.

In the book, you’ll hear from a range of customers including ABB, Colfax, Jabil, Tetra Pak, Toyota Materials Handling and ZF about the progress they are making on their AI journey. You’ll meet Patrick Bass, CEO of thyssenkrupp North America, who led the effort to implement a real-time cloud-based predictive maintenance solution that is maximizing uptime for 12 million elevators that move 1 billion people every day. And hear from Manuel Torres, a self-taught engineer who has used AI to transform his paper company into a leading supplier of composite material for airplane manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus.

The Future Computed and Manufacturing book

The book also looks at how manufacturers will need to engage with governments and civil society to help craft new regulatory frameworks, guiding the use of this new technology as the industry transforms. These frameworks should address key societal challenges, including the need to retrain workers to take on new roles and be part of a talent supply chain capable of realizing the potential of AI in manufacturing. They should also address how to store the data generated from connected supply chains and digital factories safely, securely, and in ways that respect privacy and ensure that AI is used ethically. Drawing on insights from customers and policymakers from around the world The Future Computed: AI and Manufacturing offers Microsoft’s perspective on how we might move forward on these important issues.

The Future Computed: AI and Manufacturing does not pretend to have all the answers. But we hope it will play a role in furthering discussions about how to deliver this new technology responsibly and help manufacturers better understand the steps they need to take in their AI journey.

In writing the book, Greg conducted interviews with Microsoft manufacturing customers who are at the forefront of figuring out how AI can drive success for their companies. He also interviewed workforce experts, union leaders, and policymakers from around the world and identified some common themes across these conversations.

The Future Computed: AI and Manufacturing points out the critical importance of cultural change as part of the digital transformation and the need for strong senior leadership in overseeing this shift. It also highlights the way in which the managers inside manufacturing operations who are closest to the workforce are often the most sensitive to AI’s impact on employees and are focused on improving worker safety and job satisfaction. And, while there is notable positivity from leaders in manufacturers around the impact of AI on jobs, there is also an understanding that a lot of work is needed to reinvent how we prepare people for the workforce.

The advent of AI makes this an exciting time to be in manufacturing. But it is also a time filled with great uncertainty. For anyone interested in learning more about why AI is so important to the future of manufacturing, I hope The Future Computed: AI and Manufacturing offers a useful guide. I also love the final remark that suggests leaders of today should lead with optimism.

I encourage you to download a copy here. You can also find out more about the people and companies profiled in the book and access additional information by visiting Microsoft’s AI and Manufacturing website. Additional resources can also be found in the Microsoft AI Business School.

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Building responsible and trustworthy conversational AI

From financial robo-advisors to virtual health assistants, enterprises across every industry are leveraging virtual assistants to create outstanding customer experiences and help employees maximize their time. As artificial intelligence technology continues to advance, virtual assistants will handle more and more mundane and repetitive tasks, freeing people to devote more time and energy to more productive and creative endeavors.

But like any technology, conversational AI can pose a significant risk when it’s developed and deployed improperly or irresponsibly, especially when it’s used to help people navigate information related to employment, finances, physical health, and mental well-being. For enterprises and society to realize the full potential of conversational AI, we believe bots need to be designed to act responsibly and earn user trust.

Last year, to help businesses meet this challenge, we shared 10 guidelines for building responsible conversational AI. Today, we’d like to illustrate how we’ve applied these guidelines in our own organization and share new resources that can help developers in any industry do the same.

Responsible bot guidelines

In November 2018, Lili Cheng, corporate vice president of Microsoft AI and Research, announced guidelines designed to help organizations develop bots that build trust in their services and their brands. We created these bot guidelines based on our own experiences, our research on responsible AI and by listening to our customers and partners. The guidelines are just that — guidelines. They represent the things that we found useful to think about from the very beginning of the design process. They encourage companies and organizations to think about how their bot will interact with people and how to mitigate potential risks. Ultimately, the guidelines are all about trust, because if people don’t trust the technology, they aren’t going to use it.

Designing bots with these guidelines in mind  

The bot guidelines have already started to play a central role in our own internal development processes. For example, our marketing team leveraged the guidelines while creating an AI-based lead qualification assistant that emails potential customers to determine their interest in Microsoft products and solutions. The assistant uses natural language processing to interact with customers, ensuring they receive the information they need or are directed to the Microsoft employee who can best help them. To provide a useful example, we’ve highlighted the ways in which our marketing team has approached three of the guidelines below.

  • Articulate the purpose of your bot and take special care if your bot will support consequential use cases.

Since the assistant would be customer-facing, the marketing team recognized the importance of completely thinking through every aspect of how the bot would work. Before building the lead qualification assistant, they created a vision and scope document that outlined the bot’s expected tasks, technical considerations, expected benefits and end goals in terms of business performance. By outlining these details early in the design process, the team was able to focus on developing and refining only necessary capabilities and deploy the bot sooner. Creating this document also helped them identify and design for edge cases that the bot was likely to encounter and establish a set of effective reliability metrics.

  • Ensure a seamless hand-off to a person where the person-bot exchange leads to interactions that exceed the bot’s competence.

While considering these edge use cases, the marketing team identified a couple of scenarios in which a handoff to a person would be required. First, if the assistant can’t determine the customer’s intent (for example, the response is too complex or lengthy), then the assistant will flag the conversation for a person. The person can then direct the assistant to the next best course of action or respond directly to the customer. The person also can use key phrases from the conversation to train the assistant to respond to similar situations in the future.

Secondly, the customer may ask something that the assistant doesn’t have pre-programmed. For example, a student may request information about our products and solutions but not be interested in making a purchase. The assistant would flag the conversation instead of forwarding it to sales. A person can then reply through the assistant to help the student learn more.

  • Ensure your bot is reliable

To help ensure the bot is performing as designed, the marketing team reviews a set of reliability metrics (such as the accuracy of determining intent or conversation bounce rate) through a regularly updated dashboard. As the team updates and improves the bot, it can closely analyze the impact of each change on the bot’s reliability and make adjustments as necessary.

Helping developers put the guidelines into practice

We have taken lessons learned from experiences like this one and important work from our industry-leading researchers to create actionable and comprehensive learning resources for developers.

As part of our free, online AI School, our Conversational AI learning path enables developers to start building sophisticated conversational AI agents using services such as natural language understanding or speech translation. We have recently added another module, Responsible Conversational AI, to this learning path. It covers how developers can design deeply intelligent bots and also ensure they are built in a responsible and trustworthy manner. In this learning path, developers can explore topics such as bot reliability, accessibility, security and consequential use cases and learn how to mitigate concerns that often arise with conversational AI. We have also created a Conversational AI lab in which a sample bot guides developers through a responsible conversational AI experience and explains its behavior at each point of the experience.

Learn more

We encourage you to share the AI lab and the Responsible Conversational AI learning module with technical decision-makers in your organization.

You can also go to our new AI Business School to learn more about how Microsoft has integrated AI throughout our business and how your organization can do the same.


Microsoft and General Assembly launch partnership to close the global AI skills gap

Partnership will upskill and reskill 15,000 workers over the next three years and create industry-recognized credentials for AI skills

REDMOND, Wash. — May 17, 2019 — Microsoft Corp. and global education provider General Assembly (GA) on Friday announced a partnership to close skills gaps in the rapidly growing fields of artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and data engineering, machine learning, data science, and more. This initiative will create standards and credentials for AI skills, upskill and reskill 15,000 workers by 2022, and create a pool of AI talent for the global workforce.

Technologies like AI are creating demand for new worker skills and competencies: According to the World Economic Forum, up to 133 million new roles could be created by 2022 as a result of the new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms. To address this challenge, Microsoft and GA will power 2,000 job transitions for workers into AI and machine learning roles in year one and will train an additional 13,000 workers with AI-related skills across sectors in the next three years.

“Artificial intelligence is driving the greatest disruption to our global economy since industrialization, and Microsoft is an amazing partner as we develop solutions to empower companies and workers to meet that disruption head on,” said Jake Schwartz, CEO and co-founder of GA. “At its core, GA has always been laser-focused on connecting what companies need to the skills that workers obtain, and we are excited to team up with Microsoft to tackle the AI skills gap.”

The joint program will focus on three core areas: setting the standards for artificial intelligence skills, developing scalable AI training solutions for companies, and creating a sustainable talent pool of workers with AI skills.

  • To create clear and consistent standards for AI skills, Microsoft will be the founding member of GA’s AI Standards Board, and will be joined by other industry-leading companies at the forefront of AI disruption. Over the next six months, the Standards Board will define skills standards, develop assessments, design a career framework, and build an industry-recognized credential for AI skills. Learn more about GA’s Standards Boards here.
  • As businesses adopt AI and machine learning cross-functionally, business leaders and technologists alike must understand AI concepts and master AI tools. Today, Microsoft supports business in aerospace, manufacturing and other sectors with Azure, but many workers are not yet ready to leverage its full capabilities. The collaboration will focus on accelerating the workforce training needs of Microsoft’s customers so that more teams have the foundational skills needed to work with AI.
  • To ensure that businesses can meet ever-growing AI talent needs, GA and Microsoft will establish an AI Talent Network to source candidates for hire and project-based work. GA will leverage its existing network of 22 campuses and the broader Adecco ecosystem to create a repeatable talent pipeline for the AI Talent Network.

“As a technology company committed to driving innovation, we have a responsibility to help workers access the AI training they need to ensure they thrive in the workplace of today and tomorrow,” said Jean-Philippe Courtois, executive vice president and president of Global Sales, Marketing and Operations at Microsoft. “We are thrilled to combine our industry and technical expertise with General Assembly to help close the skills gap and ensure businesses can maximize their potential in our AI-driven economy.”

About General Assembly

General Assembly (GA), an Adecco Group company, closes skills gaps for individuals and companies. Offering training and assessments in software engineering, data science, digital marketing, and more, GA is building clear career pathways for people, and sustainable, diverse talent pipelines for employers. To learn more visit

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

For more information, press only:

Microsoft Media Relations, WE Communications for Microsoft, (425) 638-7777, 

Tess VandenDolder, BerlinRosen for General Assembly, (646) 755-6142,

Note to editors: For more information, news and perspectives from Microsoft, please visit the Microsoft News Center at Web links, telephone numbers and titles were correct at time of publication, but may have changed. For additional assistance, journalists and analysts may contact Microsoft’s Rapid Response Team or other appropriate contacts listed at


Sony and Microsoft to explore strategic partnership

Companies to collaborate on new cloud-based solutions for gaming experiences and AI solutions

Kenichiro Yoshida, President and CEO, Sony Corporation, and Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft
Kenichiro Yoshida, President and CEO, Sony Corporation (left), and Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

TOKYO and REDMOND, Wash. — May 16, 2019 — Sony Corporation (Sony) and Microsoft Corp. (Microsoft) announced on Thursday that the two companies will partner on new innovations to enhance customer experiences in their direct-to-consumer entertainment platforms and AI solutions.

Under the memorandum of understanding signed by the parties, the two companies will explore joint development of future cloud solutions in Microsoft Azure to support their respective game and content-streaming services. In addition, the two companies will explore the use of current Microsoft Azure datacenter-based solutions for Sony’s game and content-streaming services. By working together, the companies aim to deliver more enhanced entertainment experiences for their worldwide customers. These efforts will also include building better development platforms for the content creator community.

Sony logoAs part of the memorandum of understanding, Sony and Microsoft will also explore collaboration in the areas of semiconductors and AI. For semiconductors, this includes potential joint development of new intelligent image sensor solutions. By integrating Sony’s cutting-edge image sensors with Microsoft’s Azure AI technology in a hybrid manner across cloud and edge, as well as solutions that leverage Sony’s semiconductors and Microsoft cloud technology, the companies aim to provide enhanced capabilities for enterprise customers. In terms of AI, the parties will explore incorporation of Microsoft’s advanced AI platform and tools in Sony consumer products, to provide highly intuitive and user-friendly AI experiences.

“Sony is a creative entertainment company with a solid foundation of technology. We collaborate closely with a multitude of content creators that capture the imagination of people around the world, and through our cutting-edge technology, we provide the tools to bring their dreams and vision to reality,” said Kenichiro Yoshida, president and CEO of Sony. “PlayStation® itself came about through the integration of creativity and technology. Our mission is to seamlessly evolve this platform as one that continues to deliver the best and most immersive entertainment experiences, together with a cloud environment that ensures the best possible experience, anytime, anywhere. For many years, Microsoft has been a key business partner for us, though of course the two companies have also been competing in some areas. I believe that our joint development of future cloud solutions will contribute greatly to the advancement of interactive content. Additionally, I hope that in the areas of semiconductors and AI, leveraging each company’s cutting-edge technology in a mutually complementary way will lead to the creation of new value for society.”

“Sony has always been a leader in both entertainment and technology, and the collaboration we announced today builds on this history of innovation,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. “Our partnership brings the power of Azure and Azure AI to Sony to deliver new gaming and entertainment experiences for customers.”

Going forward, the two companies will share additional information when available.

About Sony Corporation

Sony Corporation is a creative entertainment company with a solid foundation of technology. From game and network services to music, pictures, electronics, semiconductors and financial services — Sony’s purpose is to fill the world with emotion through the power of creativity and technology. For more information, visit:

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

For more information, press only:

Microsoft Media Relations, WE Communications for Microsoft, (425) 638-7777,

Sony Corporation, Corporate Communications & CSR Department,


Note to editors: For more information, news and perspectives from Microsoft, please visit the Microsoft News Center at Web links, telephone numbers and titles were correct at time of publication, but may have changed. For additional assistance, journalists and analysts may contact Microsoft’s Rapid Response Team or other appropriate contacts listed at



Ever-changing music shaped by skies above NYC hotel

Barwick composed five movements within an overall soundscape that reflect the constantly changing nature of the sky throughout the day, each with its own background of bass, synthesizer and vocal lines that weave in and out. For each “event,” identified by Microsoft AI, she then created six synthesized and six vocal sounds for the generative audio program to choose from – for example, 60 different musical options a day for every time an airplane passes above. The sounds are an expression of Barwick’s emotions in response to each stimulus.

“I didn’t want it to be too literal,” she says. “I could have made it sound ‘raindroppy,’ but it’s more about the attitude of the event. An airplane is a lot different than the moon, so it has more of a metallic sound than a warm sun sound or a quiet ‘moony’ kind of feeling. I wanted people who listen to it to be curious and wonder what that sound meant, what’s going across the sky right now.”

Barwick has never been afraid of technology, even if she didn’t have access to it. She recorded her first album in 2007 using a guitar pedal to form vocal loops on a cassette tape. “I didn’t even have a computer then,” she remembers. “I took my bag of tapes in somewhere to get mastered to produce the CD.”

Now she relies on technology to compose, record and perform her multilayered, ambient music. She uses effects on everything, including her voice. There’s no such thing as an unplugged Julianna Barwick set. Still, she says, “Before I was approached to do this project, the only thing I knew about artificial intelligence was from the movies. I’d never seen an application of it in my daily life.”

So as she began exploring sounds, Barwick grappled not only with what AI was and could do, but also with what her role would be in comparison to its. Who was the actual composer – she or the program? Was AI a partner or a tool?

“I contemplated how the project would play out in my absence and realized that I can make all the sounds, but I’m not going to be there to detect all the events — you have to rely on the AI to do that,” Barwick says. “And that’s such an important part of the score; it’s almost like it’s a 50-50 deal. And that’s what makes this project interesting. It almost brings in another collaborator, and the possibilities are endless. It’s opened up a new world of thinking and approaching future compositions and scores.”

a woman composes music on a laptop
A camera sends live images to a Microsoft Azure computer vision tool, which assigns tags such as “clouds” or “sun.” Those are fed into the system that technologists programmed after analyzing Barwick’s compositions and distilling them into an algorithm, which then chooses which tracks to play together.