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VentureBeat: ‘Microsoft’s AI for Earth Innovation Grant gives data scientists access to AI tools’

Microsoft and National Geographic are teaming up to support data scientists who are tackling the “world’s biggest challenges.” The two companies today announced the AI for Earth Innovation Grant program, a $1 million grant that’ll provide recipients financial assistance, access to AI tools and cloud services, and more to advance conservation research.

The grant program, which is accepting applications until October 8, will support between five and 15 projects in five core areas: agriculture, biodiversity, conservation, climate change, and water. In addition to funding, researchers will gain access to Microsoft’s AI platform and development tools, inclusion in the National Geographic Explorer community, and affiliation with National Geographic Labs, National Geographic’s research incubation and accelerator initiative.

“[I]n Microsoft, we found a partner that is well-positioned to accelerate the pace of scientific research and new solutions to protect our natural world,” Jonathan Baillie, chief scientist and executive vice president at the National Geographic Society, said in a statement. “With today’s announcement, we will enable outstanding explorers seeking solutions for a sustainable future with the cloud and AI technologies that can quickly improve the speed, scope, and scale of their work, as well as support National Geographic Labs’ activities around technology and innovation for a planet in balance.”

The aim is to make trained algorithms broadly available to the global community of environmental researchers, Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental scientist, said in a press release.

“Microsoft is constantly exploring the boundaries of what technology can do, and what it can do for people and the world,” Joppa said. “We believe that humans and computers, working together through AI, can change the way that society monitors, models, and manages Earth’s natural systems. We believe this because we’ve seen it — we’re constantly amazed by the advances our AI for Earth collaborators have made over the past months. Scaling this through National Geographic’s … network will create a whole new generation of explorers who use AI to create a more sustainable future for the planet and everyone on it.”

Selected recipients will be announced in December.

The AI for Earth Innovation Grant is an expansion of Microsoft’s AI for Earth program, announced in June 2017. In December, the Redmond company committed $50 million to an “extended strategic plan” that includes providing advanced training to universities and NGOs and the formation of a “multi-disciplinary” team of AI and sustainability experts.

Microsoft claims that in the past two years, the AI for Earth program has awarded more than 35 grants globally for access to its Azure platform and AI technologies.

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Bloomberg: ‘How Amy Hood won back Wall Street and helped reboot Microsoft’

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WIRED: ‘How artificial intelligence could prevent natural disasters’

On May 27, a deluge dumped more than 6 inches of rain in less than three hours on Ellicott City, Maryland, killing one person and transforming Main Street into what looked like Class V river rapids, with cars tossed about like rubber ducks. The National Weather Service put the probability of such a storm at once in 1,000 years. Yet, “it’s the second time it’s happened in the last three years,” says Jeff Allenby, director of conservation technology for Chesapeake Conservancy, an environmental group.

Floods are nothing new in Ellicott City, located where two tributaries join the Patapsco River. But Allenby says the floods are getting worse, as development covers what used to be the “natural sponge of a forest” with paved surfaces, rooftops, and lawns. Just days before the May 27 flood, the US Department of Homeland Security selected Ellicott City—on the basis of its 2016 flood—for a pilot program to deliver better flood warnings to residents via automated sensors.

Recently, Allenby developed another tool to help predict, plan, and prepare for future floods: a first-of-its-kind, high-resolution map showing what’s on the ground—buildings, pavement, trees, lawns—across 100,000 square miles from upstate New York to southern Virginia that drain into Chesapeake Bay. The map, generated from aerial imagery with the help of artificial intelligence, shows objects as small as 3 feet square, roughly 1,000 times more precise than the maps that flood planners previously used. To understand the difference, imagine trying to identify an Uber driver on a crowded city street using a map that can only display objects the size of a Walmart.

Creating the map consumed a year and cost $3.5 million, with help from Microsoft and the University of Vermont. Allenby’s team pored over aerial imagery, road maps, and zoning charts to establish rules, classify objects, and scrub errors. “As soon as we finished the first data set,” Allenby says, “everyone started asking ‘when are you going to do it again?’” to keep the map fresh.

Enter AI. Microsoft helped Allenby’s team train its AI for Earth algorithms to identify objects on its own. Even with a robust data set, training the algorithms wasn’t easy. The effort required regular “pixel peeping”—manually zooming in on objects to verify and amend the automated results. With each pass, the algorithm improved its ability to recognize waterways, trees, fields, roads, and buildings. As relevant new data become available, Chesapeake Conservancy plans to use its AI to refresh the map more frequently and easily than the initial labor-intensive multi-million dollar effort.

Now, Microsoft is making the tool available more widely. For $42, anyone can run 200 million aerial images through Microsoft’s AI for Earth platform and generate a high-resolution land-cover map of the entire US in 10 minutes. The results won’t be as precise in other parts of the country where the algorithm has not been trained on local conditions—a redwood tree or saguaro cactus looks nothing like a willow oak.

A map of land use around Ellicott City, Maryland, built with the help of artificial intelligence (left) offers far more detail than its predecessor (right).

Chesapeake Conservancy

To a society obsessed with location and mapping services—where the physical world unfolds in the digital every day—the accomplishment may not seem groundbreaking. Until recently, though, neither the high-resolution data nor the AI smarts existed to make such maps cost-effective for environmental purposes, especially for nonprofit conservation organizations. With Microsoft’s offer, AI on a planetary scale is about to become a commodity.

Detailed, up-to-date information is paramount when it comes to designing stormwater management systems, Allenby says. “Looking at these systems with the power of AI can start to show when a watershed” is more likely to flood, he says. The Center for Watershed Protection, a nonprofit based in Ellicott City, reported in a 2001 study that when 10 percent of natural land gets developed, stream health declines and it begins to lose its ability to manage runoff. At 20 percent, runoff doubles, compared with undeveloped land. Allenby notes that paved surfaces and rooftops in Ellicott City reached 19 percent in recent years.

Allenby says the more detailed map will enable planners to keep up with land-use changes and plan drainage systems that can accommodate more water. Eventually, the map will offer “live dashboards” and automated alerts to serve as a warning system when new development threatens to overwhelm stormwater management capacity. The Urban Forestry Administration in Washington, DC, has used the new map to determine where to plant trees by searching the district for areas without tree cover where standing water accumulates. Earlier this year, Chesapeake Conservancy began working with conservation groups in Iowa and Arizona to develop training sets for the algorithms specific to those landscapes.

The combination of high-resolution imaging and sensor technologies, AI, and cloud computing is giving conservationists deeper insight into the health of the planet. The result is a near-real-time readout of Earth’s vital signs, firing off alerts and alarms whenever the ailing patient takes a turn for the worse.

Others are applying these techniques around the world. Global Forest Watch (GFW), a conservation project established by World Resources Institute, began offering monthly and weekly deforestation alerts in 2016, powered by AI algorithms developed by the University of Maryland.1 The algorithms analyze satellite imagery as it’s refreshed to detect “patterns that may indicate impending deforestation,” according to the organization’s website. Using GFW’s mobile app, Forest Watcher, volunteers and forest rangers take to the trees to verify the automated alerts in places like the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia, which calls itself “the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers are found together in the wild.”

The new conservation formula is also spilling into the oceans. On June 4, Paul Allen Philanthropies revealed a partnership with the Carnegie Institution of Science, the University of Queensland, the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, and the private satellite company Planet to map all of the world’s coral reefs by 2020. As Andrew Zolli, a Planet vice president, explains: For the first time in history, “new tools are up to the [planetary] level of the problem.”

By the end of 2017, Planet deployed nearly 200 satellites, forming a necklace around the globe that images the entire Earth every day down to 3-meter resolution. That’s trillions of pixels raining down daily, which could never be transformed into useful maps without AI algorithms trained to interpret them. The partnership leverages the Carnegie Institution’s computer-vision tools and the University of Queensland’s data on local conditions, including coral, algae, sand, and rocks.

“Today, we have no idea of the geography, rate, and frequency of global bleaching events,” explains Greg Asner, a scientist at Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology. Based on what is known, scientists project that more than 90 percent of the world’s reefs, which sustain 25 percent of marine life, will be extinct by 2050. Lauren Kickham, impact director for Paul Allen Philanthropies, expects the partnership will bring the world’s coral crisis into clear view and enable scientists to track their health on a daily basis.

In a separate coral reef project, also being conducted with Planet and the Carnegie Institution, The Nature Conservancy is leveraging Carnegie’s computer vision AI to develop a high-resolution map of the shallow waters of the Caribbean basin. “By learning how these systems live and how they adapt, maybe not our generation, but maybe the next will be able to bring them back,” says Luis Solorzano, The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean Coral Reef project lead.

Mapping services are hardly new to conservation. Geographic Information Systems have been a staple in the conservation toolkit for years, providing interactive maps to facilitate environmental monitoring, regulatory enforcement, and preservation planning. But, mapping services are only as good as the underlying data, which can be expensive to acquire and maintain. As a result, many conservationists resort to what’s freely available, like the 30-meter-resolution images supplied by the United States Geological Survey.

Ellicott City and the Chesapeake watershed demonstrate the challenges of responding to a changing climate and the impacts of human activity. Since the 1950s, the bay’s oyster reefs have declined by more than 80 percent. Biologists discovered one of the planet’s first marine dead zones in Chesapeake Bay in the 1970s. Blue crab populations plunged in the 1990s. The sea level has risen more than a foot since 1895, and, according to a 2017 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, may rise as much as 6 feet by the end of this century.

Allenby joined the Chesapeake Conservancy in 2012 when technology companies provided a grant to explore the ways in which technology could help inform conservation. Allenby sought ways to deploy technology to help land managers, like those in Ellicott City, improve upon the dated 30-meter-resolution images that FEMA also uses for flood planning and preparation.

In 2015, Allenby connected with the University of Vermont—nationally recognized experts in generating county-level high-resolution land-cover maps—seeking a partner on a bigger project. They secured funding from a consortium of state and local governments, and nonprofit groups in 2016. The year-long effort involved integrating data from such disparate sources as aerial imagery, road maps, and zoning charts. As the data set came together, a Conservancy board member introduced Allenby to Microsoft, which was eager to demonstrate how its AI and cloud computing could be leveraged to support conservation.

“It’s been the frustration of my life to see what we’re capable of, yet how far behind we are in understanding basic information about the health of our planet,” says Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental scientist, who oversees AI for Earth. “And to see that those individuals on the front line solving society’s problems, like environmental sustainability, are often in organizations with the least resources to take advantage of the technologies that are being put out there.”

The ultimate question, however, is whether the diagnoses offered by these AI-powered land-cover maps will arrive in time to help cure the problems caused by man.

1 CORRECTION, July 11, 1:10PM: Deforestation alerts from Global Forest Watch are powered by algorithms developed by the University of Maryland. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the algorithms were developed by Orbital Insight.


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WIRED: ‘Surface Go is Microsoft’s big bet on a tiny-computer future’

Panos Panay is the betting type. You can see the evidence in Microsoft’s Building 37, where two $1 bills stick out from beneath a Surface tablet sitting on a shelf.

When I ask Panay about the dollars during a recent visit to Microsoft, he says it was a wager he made a few years back on a specific product. I ask if it was a bet on Surface RT, the very first Surface product Microsoft made, and he seems genuinely surprised. “I would have lost that bet, and I’m going to win this one,” he says. “It’s about a product that’s in market right now.” And that’s all he’ll volunteer.

Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, isn’t there to talk about the ghosts of Surface’s past, or even the present. Panay wants to talk about his next big bet in the Surface product lineup: the brand-new Surface Go. But to call it “big” would be a misnomer, because the Surface Go was designed to disappear.

Ian C. Bates

If you’ve followed the trajectory of the Surface product line, you might say that the Surface Go previously existed in some form, if not as a prototype then in sketches and leaks and rumors and in our own imaginations. But Panay insists that this new 2-in-1 device is not the offspring of anything else—not the Surface RT, not the Surface 3, and not the Surface Mini (which served as a kind of fever-dream notepad for Panay, but never shipped).

Instead, the new Surface Go is an attempt to bring most of the premium features of a $1,000 Surface Pro to something that’s both ultra-portable and more affordable.

Ian C. Bates

Like a Surface Pro, the Go is a “detachable”—a tablet that attaches to Microsoft’s alcantara Type Cover keyboard. It has the same magnesium enclosure; a bright, high-res touchscreen display that has a 3:2 aspect ratio and is bonded with Gorilla Glass; a kickstand in the back that extends to 165 degrees; support for Microsoft’s stylus pen, which attaches magnetically to the tablet; a Windows Hello face recognition camera, for bio-authentication; two front-facing speakers, an 8-megapixel rear camera; and on and on. It’s a veritable checklist of Surface Go’s external features.

But the Surface Go is tiny. It measures just 9.6 by 6.9 by .33 inches, with a 10-inch diagonal display. It also weighs 1.15 pounds. The first time I saw the Go, Natalia Urbanowicz, a product marketing manager at Microsoft, pulled the thing out of a 10-inch, leather, cross-body Knomo bag to show just how easily it can be tucked away. It’s light enough to mistake for a notebook; the last time I felt that way about a computer was when Lenovo released the YogaBook back in 2016.

Ian C. Bates

The Go also happens to be the least expensive Surface ever. When it ships in early August, it will have a base price of $399. That’s for a configuration that includes 64 gigabytes of internal storage and 4 gigabytes of RAM, and ships with Windows 10 Home in S Mode (the S stands for “streamlined,” which means you can only download apps from the Windows Store). You’ll also have to shell out extra for a Type Cover keyboard and stylus pen.

From there, specs and prices creep up: A Surface Go with 256 gigabytes of storage, 8 gigabytes of RAM, and LTE will cost you more, though Microsoft hasn’t shared how much yet. All configurations have a microSD slot for additional storage too.

The Surface Go is not the first 10-inch Surface that Panay and his team have shipped. The original Surface had a 10.6-inch display. And in 2015, Microsoft released the 10.8-inch Surface 3. It started at $499, and ran a “real” version of Windows, not Windows RT. But it was also underpowered; and, Panay admits now, it had an inelegant charging mechanism.

“To this day I regret the charging port on Surface 3,” Panay says. “I’d convinced myself that this ubiquitous USB 2.0 connector was going to solve the thing people asked me for: Can I just charge it with the charger I already have? And what I learned is that people want a charger with the device, they want a very seamless charging experience…I know that seems small, but I don’t think I can overstate that every single little detail can be a major difference maker.”

Panay says there’s been clear demand for a successor to the Surface 3, which would, by definition, have been the Surface 4. But “that evolution wasn’t right,” he says. “That would be too close to the original Surface Pro, and that’s not what this product should be at all.” Instead, he’s been noodling something like the Surface Go—codenamed “Libra”—for the past three years.

The new Surface Go benefits from all those learnings. It has the same Surface Connect port as the Pro lineup, along with a USB-C 3.1 port for data transfers and backup charging. It’s supposed to get around nine hours of battery life. It also runs on an Intel Pentium Gold processor. This is not one of Intel’s top-of-the-line Core processors, but it’s still a significant jump up from the Cherry Trail Atom processor in the Surface 3.

Pete Kyriacou, general manager of program management for Surface, says Microsoft has worked closely with Intel to tune the processor for this particular form factor. “If you compare the graphics here to the Surface Pro 3 running on an i5 [chip], it’s 33 percent better; and if you compare it to the i7, it’s 20 percent better,” Kyriacou says. “So we’re talking about Pentium processing, but, it’s better from a graphics perspective than a Core processor was just three years ago.”

A lot about the new Surface has been “tuned”—not just the guts of the Go, but its software, too. “We tuned Office, we then tuned the Intel part, we tuned Windows, we made sure that, in portrait, it came to life,” Panay says. “We brought the Cortana [team] in to better design the Cortana box—we went after the details on what we think our customers need at 10 inches.”

There’s usually a tradeoff when you’re buying a computer this small. You get portability at the expense of space for apps and browser windows. The Surface Go has a built-in scaler that optimizes apps for a 10-inch screen, and Microsoft says that it’s working with third-parties to make sure certain apps run great. There’s only so much control, though, you have over software that’s not your own. I was reminded of this when I had a few minutes to use the Surface Go, went to download the Amazon Kindle app in the Windows Store, and couldn’t find it there.

Making the Surface smaller was no small feat, according to Ralf Groene, Microsoft’s longtime head of design. Groene walks me through part of Building 87 on Microsoft’s campus, where the design studio is housed and where Groene’s team of 60 are tasked with coming up with a steady stream of ideas for potential products.

Ralf Groene, Microsoft’s head of design.

Ian C. Bates

Behind a door that says “Absolutely No Tailgating”—a warning against letting someone in behind you, not a ban on barbecues and cornhole—a small multimedia team makes concept videos. “Before products get made, we have a vision, we have an idea, and we express it in a video,” Groene tells me. If the video is received well by top executives, they know they have a winner. “Since there’s usually a timeline on how long processors are good for, we try to build as many iterations as possible of a product within that timeline.”

Once the Surface Go got the go ahead, Groene’s job became that of a geometrist: How do you fit all this stuff into a 9.6-inch enclosure? Going with magnesium again was an easy choice; it’s up to 36 percent lighter than aluminum, Groene says, and Microsoft has already invested in the machinery needed to work with magnesium. Some of the angles of the Go’s body are softer—Groene calls these “curvatures and radii”—making it more comfortable to hold close for extended time periods, like if you’re reading or drawing.

By far the biggest challenge was the Go’s Type Cover keyboard. The factor that always stays the same is the human, Groene says, and that includes fingers. Shrink a keyboard too much in your quest to make a laptop thin and light, and you’ll inevitably get complaints from people that their fingers are cramped, or that they land on each key with an unsatisfying thud. (Or worse, that the keyboard is essentially broken.)

The Go’s keyboard is undoubtedly smaller than the one that attaches to the Surface Pro. But it still has a precision glass trackpad, and a key travel that Groene says is fractionally less than the key travel on the Pro.

Ian C. Bates

Most notably, the Go’s keyboard uses a scissor-switch mechanism that was designed to give, as Groene describes it, the right “force to fire.” Each key is also slightly dished, a decision that Microsoft made after watching hours of footage of people typing, captured with a high-speed camera. The keys are supposed to feel plush and good under your fingers and not at all like a tiny accessory keyboard. (I only used the keyboard on the Go for a brief period of time, so I can’t really say what it would be like to use the keyboard to, say, type of a story of this length.)

I mention to Groene that Apple has long held the stance that touchscreens aren’t right for PC’s, something that Apple’s software chief Craig Federighi underscored in a recent WIRED interview when he said that they’re “fatiguing.” And yet, Microsoft is pretty committed to touchscreen PCs. What does Microsoft’s research show about how people use touchscreen PCs?

Groene first points out that the Surface laptop is the only one in Microsoft’s product line that has a classic laptop form factor and a touchscreen; the others are detachables, or, there’s the giant Surface Studio PC. But, more to the point, he says, “By offering multiple ways to get things done doesn’t mean that we add things. It’s not like the Swiss army knife, where every tool you put in makes it bigger.”

Sure, if you sit there for eight hours holding your arm up, it will get tired, Groene acknowledges. But that’s not the way people are supposed to use these things. “It’s the same thing with the pen. ‘We don’t need the pen because we are born with ten styluses,’” Groene says, wiggling his fingers, making an oblique reference to a well-known Steve Jobs quote about styluses. “However, having the tool of a pen is awesome when you want to go sketch something.”

“We are trying to design products for people,” he says, “and we don’t try to dictate how people use our devices.”

Ian C. Bates

So who is this tiny Surface Go actually made for? It depends on who you ask at Microsoft, but the short answer seems to be: anybody and everybody.

Urbanowicz, the product marketing manager, says Go is about “reaching more audiences, and embracing the word ‘and’: I can be a mother, and an entrepreneurial badass; I can be a student, and a social justice warrior.” Kyriacou, when describing the Go’s cameras, says to “think about the front line worker in the field—a construction worker, architect, they can capture what they need to or even scan a document.” You can also dock the Go, Kyriacou points out, using the Surface Connect port, which makes it ideal for business travelers. Groene talks about reading, about drawing, about running software applications like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Almost everyone talks about watching Hulu and Netflix on it.

Panos Panay initially has a philosophical answer to this. It’s his “dream,” he says, to just get Surface products to more people. “I mean, that’s not my ultimate dream. But there are these blurred lines of life and work that are happening, and if you collect all that, Go was an obvious step for us.”

The evening before Panay and I chatted, he went to the Bellevue Square shopping center with his son, and at one point, had to pull out his LTE-equipped Surface Go to address what he said was an urgent work issue. His son asked if it was a new product, and Panay, realizing the blunder of having the thing out in public, tucked the Go in his jacket. To him, that’s the perfect anecdote: The lines between work and family time were blurred, he had to do something quickly, and when he was done, he could make his computer disappear.

Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer.

Ian C. Bates

Panay’s team also has a lot more insight into how people are using Surface products than it did eight years ago, he says, when Surface was still just a concept being developed in a dark lab. To be sure, Microsoft has been making hardware for decades—keyboards, mice, web cameras, Xbox consoles. But when Microsoft made the decision to start making its own PCs (and ultimately, take more control over how its software ran on laptops), it was a new hardware category for the company. It was a chance to get consumers excited about Microsoft again, not just enterprise customers.

The first few years of Surface were rocky. The first one, known as Surface RT, seems to be something that Microsoft executives would rather forget about; I don’t see it anywhere in the product lineups that Microsoft’s PR team has laid out ahead of my visit. Its 2012 launch coincided with the rollout of Windows 8, which had an entirely new UI from the previous version of Windows. It ran on a 32-bit ARM architecture, which meant it ran a version of the operating system called Windows RT. Depending on who you ask, the Surface RT was either a terrible idea or ahead of its time. (Panay says it was visionary.) Microsoft ending up taking a massive write-down on it the following year.

Since then, Microsoft has rolled out a series of Surface products that, due to the company’s design ethos, a newer operating system, and plain old Moore’s Law, have only gotten better. In 2013 it introduced the Surface Pro line, which are still detachables, but are built to perform like a premium laptop and can cost anywhere from $799 to $2,600. There’s the Surface Book line; the Surface Book 2 starts at $1,199 and clocks in around 3.5 pounds, making it a serious commitment of a laptop. The Surface Studio is a gorgeous, $2,999, all-in-one desktop PC, aimed at creative types. The Surface Laptop is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s MacBook Air. It starts at $799, and got largely positive reviews when it launched last year.

Even still, Microsoft’s Surface line has struggled to make a significant dent in the market for personal computing. HP and Lenovo dominate the broader PC market, while Apple leads in the tablet category (including both detachables and slate tablets).“From a shipment perspective, the entire Surface portfolio has been fairly soft,” says Linn Huang, an IDC research director who tracks devices and displays. “It was growing tremendously, and then the iPad Pro launched and Surface shipments have either been negative, year-over-year, for the past several quarters, or flat.”

Microsoft has new competition to worry about, too: Google’s inexpensive Chromebooks, which in a short amount of time have taken over a large share of the education market.

“Do I think about Chromebooks? Absolutely,” Panay says, when I ask him about them. “Do I think about iPads? Absolutely. I use multiple devices. It’s exhausting. But this product is meant to bring you a full app suite.” Panay is highlighting one of the drawbacks of lightweight Chromebooks: Their lack of local storage. Meanwhile, he says, Surfaces are designed to let people be productive both locally on the device, and in the cloud when they need to work in the cloud.

And, while Panay says he’s keeping an eye on Chromebooks, he insists that Microsoft didn’t build Go to compete with Chromebooks. That said, Surface Go will have a school-specific software option: IT administrators for schools can choose whether they want a batch of Go’s imaged with Windows 10 Pro Education, or Windows 10 S mode-enabled.

Panay wouldn’t comment on Microsoft’s plans for the future beyond Surface Go, although there have long been rumors of a possible Microsoft handheld device, codenamed Andromeda. If the Surface Go is something of a return to a smaller, 10-inch detachable, then a pocketable device that folds in half, one that could potentially run on an ARM processor, would be something of a return to mobile for Microsoft. Qualcomm has also been making mobile chips that are designed to compete directly with Intel’s Core processors for PCs.

For now, though, Panay is throwing all his chips behind the Surface Go, and making a big bet that this little device is the one that will make the masses fall in love with Surface. He tends to chalk up past Surface products, even the ones that didn’t do well, as simply before their time. Now, with the Go, he says, “it’s time.”


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GeekWire: ‘”Defining moment” for Seattle as Microsoft, Amazon, others support Special Olympics USA Games’

Michel Kozoris raises his arms after competing in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in 2011. (Photo via Special Olympics)

Seattle-area tech companies are making a statement about building an inclusive workforce as the city hosts one of the largest sporting events in the region’s history.

More than 3,000 athletes will arrive in the Emerald City next week for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games and compete across 14 sports. The event, now in its 50th year, not only spotlights the talent of athletes with intellectual disabilities, but perhaps more importantly promotes inclusion beyond the playing field.

“In many ways, this can and should be a defining moment for the Seattle community,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in an interview with GeekWire. “It’s a great opportunity to show the nation that we aspire to be a real city and region of inclusion.”

This group raised a Special Olympics flag atop the Space Needle in Seattle on Friday morning. From left to right: Beth Knox, CEO, Special Olympics USA Games; Allen Stone,singer/songwriter; Devon Adelman, Special Olympics athlete; Brad Smith, Microsoft President; and Taye Diggs, singer and author.

Microsoft is the presenting sponsor of the games. The Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant is a long-time supporter of the Special Olympics through donations of software, technical assistance and even cell phones over the years.

But the company is stepping up even more with the games in its backyard this year. It’s a reflection of Microsoft’s broader focus on accessibility — one that got away from the company until Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, Smith said. “We lost our industry leadership position in terms of meeting the needs of people with disabilities,” he said.

That renewed commitment has helped spur a larger culture shift across the company, Smith said. He pointed to products like the new Xbox Adaptive Controller and the company’s $25 million AI for Accessibility Initiative as examples.

More than 2,000 employees will be volunteering at the games next week. Microsoft’s Xbox division is also hosting the first-ever video game tournament at the USA Games.

“If you think about our mission of empowering everyone, then fundamentally we have to do a good job of meeting the needs of the billion-plus people on the planet that have some kind of disability, temporary or permanent,” Smith added. He and Nadella will speak at the Opening Ceremony on Sunday at Husky Stadium with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Devon Adelman, a Special Olympics USA Games athlete and ambassador, speaks at Microsoft’s Ability Summit in May. (Photo via Microsoft)

Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and other companies are participating in the first-ever job fair at a Special Olympics USA Games this year called “Journey of Employment,” where athletes will gain career advice and meet with potential employers. It’s designed to raise awareness for a talent pool that organizers say is often overlooked.

“These partners are committed to creating inclusive work cultures and to helping improve the unemployment rate for people with disabilities,” said Special Olympics USA Games CEO Beth Knox.

The unemployment rate of people with disabilities was 9.2 percent in 2017, double that of the rate for those without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And even with government support, nearly 29 percent of disabled, working-age Americans live below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census data. That line is set at $12,082 for one person.

Artists known as “They Drift” created a mural that was placed on Amazon’s campus in Seattle as part of the “Choose to Include” campaign for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. (Photo via Amazon)

Amazon will also be heavily involved next week. The e-commerce giant is sponsoring the closing ceremony near its campus in South Lake Union and will have more than 400 employees volunteering throughout the games. It is also donating boxed lunches for athletes throughout the week via FareStart and launched a neighborhood restaurant campaign this month called “Choose to Include.”

Amazon says it is committed to inclusive hiring. It runs an Alternative Workforce Supplier Program that identifies people with disabilities for hire in the company’s fulfillment centers. The company also partners with Northwest Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit supporting mentally and physically disabled adults and children that provides employees to Amazon. Many of its products and software services offer accessibility features, too.

“At Amazon, diversity and inclusion are an inherent part of our culture,” said Beth Galetti, Amazon’s senior vice president of human resources. “The unique talents, experiences, and backgrounds of our employees are the driving force which enables us to build and innovate on behalf of millions of customers around the world.”

Amazon’s Spheres glow purple in Seattle this past March as the company joined others in marking 100 days until the Special Olympics USA Games begin in the city. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

Bellevue, Wash.-based wireless carrier T-Mobile and coffee giant Starbucks are getting involved as well. T-Mobile, which has more than 7,000 members in its Access for Disabilities Network, created a text-to-give program that enables donations for the games.

Starbucks has hundreds of employees who are volunteering at the event. For the past three years, Starbucks has received a 100 percent score on the Disability Equality Index survey sponsored by the American Association of People with Disabilities and the U.S. Business Leadership Network.

“Going forward, I would like in my lifetime to see where you hire somebody – a barista who has autism and it goes viral and it’s on the “Ellen” show – that that doesn’t get the attention anymore. That it just is commonplace,” Starbucks manager of Equal Opportunity Initiatives Marthalee Galeota said in 2016. “We have one world – one accessible world where disability is adaptability, it’s humanity, it’s innovation and it’s our global responsibility.”

Smith, Microsoft’s president, said the tech industry should consider how products take into account the needs of people with disabilities, while pursuing new breakthroughs that meet their needs in new ways.

He also said employers should involve people with disabilities in the creation of products. One phrase used in the community is “nothing should be created for us, without us.”

“The key to long-term product improvement for this important community is actually to do a much better job of bringing them into our workforce and making them a key part of our overall ecosystem,” Smith said.

You can get tickets to the USA Games or sign up to volunteer here.

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GeekWire’s ‘Geek of the Week: Microsoft’s Raghu Ramakrishnan geeks out on data, how we use it and secure it’

Raghu Ramakrishnan has been at Microsoft for six years. (Photo courtesy of Raghu Ramakrishnan)

He’s been a professor and a chief scientist, a founder, a technical fellow and a chief technology officer. Through it all, Raghu Ramakrishnan has been focused on the data.

Ramakrishnan is Microsoft’s CTO for Data and our latest Geek of the Week. In his six years at the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, Ramakrishnan founded the CISL applied research team and led the development of Azure Data Lake, Microsoft’s exabyte-scale storage and analytics platform.

Prio to Microsoft, Ramakrishnan spent 22 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in addition to being founder and CTO of QUIQ, an early online crowd-sourced question-answering company.

“My early work in database systems has influenced query optimization in commercial database systems and the design of window functions in SQL:1999, and has received the SIGMOD Test-of-Time Award for work on clustering and the ICDT Test-of-Time Award for work on nearest-neighbor indexing,” Ramakrishnan said. “I’ve also written the widely used text ‘Database Management Systems.’”

In his six years at Yahoo! as a chief scientist, Ramakrishnan led, among other things, the science teams for major initiatives, including the CORE project that was the foundation for Yahoo’s personalized portal pages.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Raghu Ramakrishnan:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I think about what’s around the bend in the space of data — the trends in how we’re capturing data, how we are using it, the concerns around appropriate data use and regulatory changes, and the implications for data platforms and technologies. In SQL Server and Azure, Microsoft has industry leading data management and cloud platforms, and we need to constantly up our game to ensure that these are state of the art.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Increasingly, many aspects of the world we live in are reflected in data that we gather to operate or improve aspects of that world. This data is at the very heart of the AI revolution that we now hear about everywhere — you can’t apply machine learning without data to learn from — and database systems are the key to securing this data and ensuring that policies for appropriate access and usage are indeed enforced.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “The fact that data is center-stage in our world today means that we need to build powerful and dependable systems to secure and interpret that data. In a very real sense, your most private data (and mine) are protected by data management systems. So, it’s more than bits and bytes at stake here, it’s about the most important aspects of our lives.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “The internet. It’s how I learn what’s going on in the world, it’s how I call people more often than not, it’s how my entertainment is delivered.”

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “Open, informal, good coffee — what more could you ask for? Oh yes, the only professional team that’s community owned. Say cheese.”

Raghu Ramakrishnan’s allegiance to the Green Bay Packers is evident in his office decor and in some of his answers to our questionnaire. (Photo courtesy of Raghu Ramakrishnan)

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Work hard, but don’t mistake work for life.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows or Linux.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter. Too many back-to-back meetings in different buildings.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Tell them I’m too busy to think about a startup.”

I once waited in line for … “An autograph from William Henderson, a guy who made his living by creating lanes for Ahman Green to run through.”

Your role models: “School teachers. The best ones change the lives of our children when they’re most in need of direction, and I value what they do enormously—and I’m humbled by how much the best of them put into their work, regardless of how shamefully they are underpaid.”

Greatest game in history: “The Ice Bowl.”

Best gadget ever: “The wheel.”

First computer: “Fingers.”

Current phone: “Android.”

Favorite app: “Outlook (seriously!)”

Favorite cause: “Against Malaria Foundation.”

Most important technology of 2018: “GDPR support.”

Most important technology of 2020: “Transporters.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Dif-tor heh smusma.”

Twitter: @raghurwi

LinkedIn: Raghu Ramakrishnan

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GeekWire: ‘Inside the private event where Microsoft, Google, Salesforce and other rivals share security secrets’

Speaking this week on the Microsoft campus, L-R: Erik Bloch, Salesforce security products and program management director; Alex Maestretti, engineering manager on the Netflix Security Intelligence and Response Team; David Seidman, Google security engineering manager; and Chang Kawaguchi, director for Microsoft Office 365 security. (GeekWire Photos / Todd Bishop)

REDMOND, Wash. — At first glance, the gathering inside Building 99 at Microsoft this week looked like many others inside the company, as technical experts shared hard-earned lessons for using machine learning to defend against hackers.

Ram Shankar Siva Kumar, Microsoft security data wrangler, spearheaded the event.

It looked normal, that is, until you spotted the person in the blue Google shirt addressing the group, next to speakers from Salesforce, Netflix and Microsoft, at a day-long event that included representatives of Facebook, Amazon and other big cloud providers and services that would normally treat technical insights as closely guarded secrets.

As the afternoon session ended, the organizer from Microsoft, security data wrangler Ram Shankar Siva Kumar, complimented panelist Erik Bloch, the Salesforce security products and program management director, for “really channeling the Ohana spirit,” referencing the Hawaiian word for “family,” which Salesforce uses to describe its internal culture of looking out for one another.

It was almost enough to make a person forget the bitter rivalry between Microsoft and Salesforce.

Siva Kumar then gave attendees advice on finding the location of the closing reception. “You can Bing it, Google it, whatever it is,” he said, as the audience laughed at the rare concession to Microsoft’s longtime competitor.

It was no ordinary gathering at Microsoft, but then again, it’s no ordinary time in tech. The Security Data Science Colloquium brought the competitors together to focus on one of the biggest challenges and opportunities in the industry.

Machine learning, one of the key ingredients of artificial intelligence, is giving the companies new superpowers to identify and guard against malicious attacks on their increasingly cloud-oriented products and services. The problem is that hackers are using many of the same techniques to take those attacks to a new level.

Dawn Song, UC Berkeley computer science and engineering professor.

“The challenge is that security is a very asymmetric game,” said Dawn Song, a UC Berkeley computer science and engineering professor who attended the event. “Defenders have to defend across the board, and attackers only need to find one hole. So in general, it’s easier for attackers to leverage these new techniques.”

That helps to explain why the competitors are teaming up.

“At this point in the development of this technology it’s really critical for us to move at speed to all collaborate,” explained Mark Russinovich, the Microsoft Azure chief technology officer. “A customer of Google is also likely a customer of Microsoft, and it does nobody any good or gives anybody a competitive disadvantage to keep somebody else’s customer, which could be our own customer, insecure. This is for the betterment of everybody, the whole community.”

[Editor’s Note: Russinovich is a keynoter at the GeekWire Cloud Tech Summit, June 27 in Bellevue, Wash.]

This spirit of collaboration is naturally more common in the security community than in the business world, but the colloquium at Microsoft has taken it to another level. GeekWire is the first media organization to go inside the event, although some presentations weren’t opened up to us, due in part to the sensitive nature of some of the information the companies shared.

The event, in its second year, grew out of informal gatherings between Microsoft and Google, which resulted in part from connections Siva Kumar made on long-distance runs with Google’s tech security experts. After getting approval from his manager, he brought one of the Google engineers to Microsoft two years ago to compare notes with his team.

The closing reception for the Security Data Science Colloquium at Microsoft this week. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Things have snowballed from there. After the first event, last year, Siva Kumar posted about the colloquium, describing it as a gathering of “security data scientists without borders.” As the word got out, additional companies asked to be involved, and Microsoft says this year’s event was attended by representatives of 17 different tech companies in addition to university researchers.

The event reflects a change in Microsoft’s culture under CEO Satya Nadella, as well as a shift in the overall industry’s approach. Of course, the companies are still business rivals that compete on the basis of beating each other’s products. But in years or decades past, many treated security as a competitive advantage, as well. That’s what has changed.

“This is not a competing thing. This is not about us trying to one up each other,” Siva Kumar said. “It just feels like, year over year, our problems are just becoming more and more similar.”

Siamac Mirzaie of Netflix presents at the event. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

In one afternoon session this week, representatives from Netflix, one of Amazon Web Services’ marquee customers, gave detailed briefings on the streaming service’s internal machine learning tools, including its “Trainman” system for detecting and reporting unusual user activity.

Developing and improving the system has been a “humbling journey,” said Siamac Mirzaie from the Netflix Science & Analytics Team, before doing a deep dive on the technical aspects of Trainman.

Depending on the situation, he said, Netflix uses either Python, Apache Spark or Flink to bring the data into its system and append the necessary attributes to the data. It then uses simple rules, statistical models and machine learning models to detect anomalies using Flink or Spark, followed by a post-processing layer that uses a combination of Spark and Node.js. That’s followed by a program for visualizing the anomalies in a timeline that people inside the company can use to drill down into and understand specific events.

“The idea is to refine the various data anomalies that we’ve generated in the previous stage into anomalies that our application owner or security analyst can actually relate to,” Mirzaie said.

The stakes are high given the $8 billion that Netflix is expected to spend on content this year.

But the stakes might be even higher for Facebook. The social network, which has been in the international spotlight over misuse of its platform by outside companies and groups, says it uses a combination of automated and manual systems to identify fraudulent and suspicious activity.

Facebook, which held a similar event of its own in April, was among the companies that presented during the gathering at Microsoft this week. Facebook recently announced that it used new machine learning practices to detect more than 500,000 accounts tied to financial scams.

Mark Russinovich, Microsoft Azure CTO, in his conference room on the company’s Redmond campus this week. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

During his keynote, Microsoft’s Russinovich talked in detail about Windows PowerShell, the command-line program that is a popular tool for attackers in part because it’s built into the system. Microsoft’s Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection is designed to detect suspicious command lines, and Microsoft was previously using a traditional model that was trained to recognize potentially malicious sequences of characters.

“That only got us so far,” Russinovich said in an interview.

After brainstorming ways to solve the problem, the company’s security defense researchers figured out how to apply deep neural networks, more commonly used in vision-based object detection, for use in PowerShell malicious script detection, as well. They essentially came up with a way to encode command lines to make them look like images to the machine learning model, Russinovich explained. The result surpassed the traditional technique “by a significant amount,” he said.

At the closing panel discussion, David Seidman, Google security engineering manager, summed up the stated philosophy of the event. “We are not trying to compete on the basis of our corporate security,” he said. “Google is not trying to get ahead of Microsoft in the cloud because Microsoft got compromised. That’s the last thing we want to see.”

“We are fighting common enemies,” Seidman added. “The same attackers are coming after all of us, and an incident at one company is going to affect that customer’s trust in all the cloud companies they do business with. So we have very much aligned interests here.”

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Bloomberg: ‘Microsoft buys GitHub for $7.5 billion, going back to its roots’

Microsoft Corp. is buying GitHub Inc. for $7.5 billion in stock, bringing in house a community of 28 million programmers who publish code openly and extending a shift away from a strategy of shrouding its software in secrecy.

The move is both a return to Microsoft’s earliest software-development roots and a sharp turnaround from its stance on open-source software a decade ago. Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella said the deal, expected to close by the end of this year, will speed moves into the cloud and artificial intelligence.

“Computing is becoming embedded in the world, with every part of our daily life and work and every aspect of our society and economy being transformed by digital technology,” Nadella wrote in a blog post Monday. “Developers are the builders of this new era, writing the world’s code. And GitHub is their home.”

GitHub, a 10-year old San Francisco-based startup, was founded as a way for software developers to share and collaborate on coding tools and is an essential platform for many open-source programmers.

Microsoft wasn’t always so welcoming to such coders, who were seen as a threat to the company’s business as a commercial software company. Co-founder Bill Gates and former Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer championed developers building proprietary software for Microsoft, not the kind of open-source projects found on GitHub.

In fact, in the early 2000s, Ballmer and his team were highly critical of that kind of a project, calling it a “cancer” and saying that it went against “the American Way.”

A lot has changed since then. Under Nadella, who took over four years ago, Microsoft has been increasingly relying on open-source software to add programming tools, and the purchase of GitHub lets it tie up with a company that has become a key part of the way Microsoft writes its own software. Microsoft is now supporting many flavors of Linux, an open-source operating system, and has used open models on some significant cloud and developer products itself. This deal will mark another dramatic step in that direction.

The acquisition reflects Microsoft’s “ongoing pivot to open-source software, seeking to further broaden its large and growing development community,” said Richard Lane, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service.

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft is now one of the biggest contributors to GitHub, and as Nadella moves the company away from complete dependence on the Windows operating system to more in-house development on Linux, the company needs new ways to connect with the broader developer community.

Not all the developers are happy about being controlled by the world’s biggest software company. “Anybody active in the open source community should be upset that Microsoft is going to be the steward of this large body of code,” said coder Jacques Mattheij. He said he deleted his GitHub account.

Nadella acknowledged that he’ll have to earn the trust of GitHub’s users, but also said that Microsoft is “all in on open source.”

Satya Nadella

Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg

“Microsoft is a developer-first company, and by joining forces with GitHub we strengthen our commitment to developer freedom, openness and innovation,” Nadella said in the statement.

The deal will add to Microsoft’s operating income in its fiscal year 2020, the company said in a statement Monday. The shares were up 0.6 percent to $101.38 at 9:55 a.m. in New York.

For GitHub, which has been trying for nine months to find a new chief executive officer and has yet to make a profit, the acquisition provides a new way forward.

GitHub, which will operate independently, will be led by Nat Friedman, the former CEO of Xamarin and a current Microsoft developer-tools executive. It will continue to support the programming languages, tools and operating systems of the user’s choice.

GitHub preferred selling the company to going public and chose Microsoft partially because it was impressed by Nadella, a person familiar with the deal said on Sunday.

While GitHub is used by Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Microsoft to store corporate code and collaborate, the company’s losses have been significant — it lost $66 million over three quarters in 2016. It had revenue of $98 million in nine months of 2016.

Microsoft has talked to GitHub on and off for a few years. Recently they began talks about a partnership but progressed to discussing an acquisition, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The deal is the third of Nadella’s four-year tenure that’s valued at above $2 billion, following LinkedIn in 2016 for $26.2 billion and the maker of the Minecraft video game, Mojang AB, in 2014 for $2.5 billion.