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How to teach kids music without instruments? Teacher plays bandleader with ensemble of apps

At Kaenoisuksa school, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we face the unique challenge of bringing music education to roughly 600 students who don’t have the benefit of real instruments to practice with. Adding to the complexity, our student body is a diverse mix Shan, Yunnan and Lahu students who all bring a different set of cultural values and learning techniques to the classroom every day. Our curriculum has to be nimble if it’s going to serve all of their unique needs.

As the school’s music and dramatic arts teacher, it’s my job to find educational solutions that will strike a chord with my students. In the common smartphone, I found a tool perfectly fit for the job—so long as it was equipped with the right apps.

Learning music isn’t just a matter of knowing how to play this song on that instrument. Using Microsoft apps like Office, Sway, OneNote, PowerPoint, Windows Movie Maker and others, I weaved together a 21st-century lesson plan that covered a range of musical topics, from theory to technique to history and cultural context. I call it Mobile Music Learning, and through it, my students have learned both the fundaments of music education as well as the value of technology in exploring their own questions in their own ways.

Things That Worked in My Classroom

  • Mobile VR Thrills: My students loved exploring international music and concert videos with apps like WITHIN and YouTube VR, which help turn your mobile screen into a virtual-reality headset. Access to music videos—from Operas in London to Indonesian dance routines in Bali—seeded them with questions about instruments, dance and other cultural elements that led to lively discussion as a class.
  • Strum Your Screens: Countless apps will turn your phone into a real-live instrument, replete with keys, strings, skins or some other music-making analog of your choosing. This let students get their hands a little dirty with playing where they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. Even better, they got to do so from home long after class was over—and on just about any instrument they could think of.
  • Tech Does Double Duty: I want my students to learn music education, of course, but through it, I also want them to learn tech fluency. They are emerging into a world where success will depend on their ability to confidently navigate tech tools. Employing integrated apps like Microsoft Sway, Word, PowerPoint and Windows MovieMaker to explore, share and present the material helps them build that confidence along the way.

Practicing an instrument on a smartphone may seem like a novel concept, but for my students, a familiarity with mobile devices meant they brought more confidence to the initial lessons than they might’ve in a class with traditional instruments. The portability of our devices also empowered them to continue exploring the lessons for themselves once class had finished.

By applying the tech tools they’re already familiar with, I encouraged my students to explore, and ultimately synthesize, the subject matter in ways that felt natural to them as digital natives. The result was not only a newfound appreciation for music education but also the fostering of a rich and informed dialogue about other related subjects.

The Mobile Music Learning curriculum I created is little more than a collection of everyday Microsoft software applications. On their own, any one of the apps provides an important, specific tool. When combined in symphony, though, they strike a harmony that is greater than the sum of their unique parts. For my students, that approach helped fuel a modern, imaginative curiosity that made the curriculum more engaging and the group discussion more meaningful.

Ready to unlock limitless learning for your students? Check out our tools for educators. Already experiencing the difference in your classroom? Share your changemaker story with us!

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Surface Hub 2S advances Microsoft’s vision to empower teams in today’s modern workplace

Today we joined Steelcase in New York to share our vision for empowering teams and unveiled new details about the Surface Hub 2S product line, introducing the new 85-inch screen size and bringing unprecedented, battery-enabled mobility to the 50-inch collaboration device.

Man wheels a Surface Hub 2S into a meeting room

Our best ideas come from when we’re working as a team – focused, engaged, connected.  When Surface started, we were a team of 12 all working together in a secret lab in Redmond. Collaboration was a constant and it was simple – at least in terms of location. Today, we’re a team spread across the globe, working closely with groups across Microsoft not just to build devices, but to create connected and complete experiences.

Surface Hub 2S is a product built to engage and empower teams by bridging digital and physical workspaces, because how we work continues to evolve every day. Not so long ago, the emphasis was on individual productivity. Today that’s changed – the situations we face at work are more complex and solving them requires a variety of skillsets and knowledge.

It’s why people are spending more time than ever before collaborating, and why companies are embracing new ways of working together. People see teamwork as critical to their job, but teams are more global and mobile than ever and being in the same room often isn’t possible. Businesses are looking to technology to close the gap – not only across departments, buildings and time zones, but also to connect different work styles and perspectives.

At Microsoft, we’ve been working on this – empowering people to achieve more, together. We’ve evolved Office into a collaborative suite that lets you work together in real-time from any device. We’ve introduced Microsoft Teams to create one, secure place for teams to access all the tools they need to do their work and added new innovations and enhanced AI to Microsoft Whiteboard. We’ve expanded our Surface family of devices to include not just devices designed for individuals, but also devices purpose-built for teamwork.

Today, we’re excited to share more about how we’re driving the category forward with Surface Hub 2S.

Surface Hub 2S – an all-in-one device built for teamwork

Surface Hub 2S harnesses the full power of Microsoft – Windows 10, Microsoft Teams, Office 365, Microsoft Whiteboard and the intelligent cloud – to unlock the productivity of your team. This new device packs even more performance into a thinner, lighter more versatile design. Forty percent lighter than its predecessor, and with a 60 percent thinner display, Surface Hub 2S fits easily into any space – from a traditional conference room to a compact huddle space. The vibrant 4K+ 50-inch multi-touch display offers an inviting canvas to co-create with the best pen and touch experience and the highest resolution compared to any device in its class. Plus, Surface Hub 2S offers 50 percent faster graphics performance than the original Surface Hub. Surface Hub 2S will start shipping in the U.S.* in June and will be priced at $8,999.99. Surface Hub 2S will be available in the additional Surface Hub markets shortly thereafter.

Teamwork anywhere

Surface Hub 2S gives teams the flexibility to come together wherever they work best. It takes something that has long been a fixture in the conference room – the shared screen – and transforms it into a mobile computer, built for teams. Surface Hub 2S offers the thinnest edge and smallest bezels in its class, bringing you closer to your content and your team and integrating seamlessly into any office environment. When paired with the Steelcase Roam Mobile Stand and APC Charge Mobile Battery, Surface Hub 2S creates a mobile collaboration experience that frees teams from the conference room and allows your ideas to be as mobile as you are – no AC power connectivity required.

Bring remote teams together

Woman meeting with others using a Surface Hub 2S

Joining a meeting remotely can be painful. It can be hard to stay engaged when you can’t see the people in the room and the content being shared at the same time. Surface Hub 2S helps make meetings more engaging and inclusive of people working remotely. With built-in Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business integration, you can start meetings instantly with one touch. The large true-to-life screen, enhanced 4K camera, crystal clear speakers and far-field mic arrays help everyone on the team – local or remote – see and engage with the meeting content and each other, making it feel almost like everyone is in the same room together.

Stay in the team flow

Too often, great ideas get stuck on the conference room whiteboard and the team’s flow gets broken when the meeting ends. Surface Hub 2S enables teams work digitally all the way through their creative process, with access to the tools they rely on. Easily sign into your Office 365 account to access and interact with the content you need, run must-have Microsoft and business applications natively, and interact naturally with Surface Hub 2 Pen and touch. The Microsoft Whiteboard allows people to collaborate on a shared digital canvas from almost any device so it’s easy to pick up where you left off, keeping teams in their flow.

Woman using a Surface Hub 2 Pen to write on a Surface Hub 2S display

New options to meet a variety of business needs

We know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to collaboration. Businesses require choice, flexibility and control over the productivity tools that help enable teamwork. Over the last several months, we have been listening closely to our customers to deliver tailored options to meet a variety of emerging needs. This includes delivering Surface Hub 2S now, with a modular hardware design that will enable customers to unlock new experiences in the future.

Later this year, we will also offer Surface Hub 2 Display, for spaces that need a great pen and touch enabled interactive display, without the compute, as well as a new configuration option for Surface Hub 2S customers to run Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise on their device(s) for specialized app scenarios. We’re also excited to announce that we’re adding an 85-inch version to the Surface Hub family. We will begin testing Surface Hub 2S 85-inch with select customers in early 2020.

We’ve been inspired by how our customers use Surface Hub to transform meetings and collaborate. And we can’t wait to see how businesses across the globe will use Surface Hub 2S to empower their teams to work together in new ways.

 

[*Disclaimer: Surface Hub 2S has not yet been authorized under U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules; actual sale and delivery is contingent on compliance with applicable FCC requirements.]

Updated April 17, 2019 9:14 am

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Building for the future: Imagine Cup competition helping students become global innovators

Every year, professionals from around the globe join us at Build, our premier developer conference, to learn about new technologies, gain hands-on experience, and level-up their development skills. It’s one of my favorite events, and this year, it’s getting even better as we extend these opportunities to students.

For the first time, Build attendees are invited to bring up to two family members aged 14-21 to participate with them—for free. We’ll also bring in local Seattle-area high school students to participate in some of these learning opportunities. The newly created Student Zone at Build is designed to provide an immersive educational experience for the students and attendees, with access to a Surface-equipped lab, on-site experts, a career center, workshops, tech talks and live co-coding opportunities. Naturally, there will be Minecraft—and so much more. Students can talk to cloud engineers, explore data with Azure Cognitive Services, learn about how to code on GitHub and use Visual Studio Code. There will be opportunities to learn more about AI and explore the most important technologies and skills developers of tomorrow will need.

Microsoft is committed to empowering the next generation of creators to pursue their dreams through access to technology, resources and learning opportunities. One way we encourage students to break boundaries and address real problems is through the Imagine Cup, which has seen students from around the world continually raise the innovation bar through teamwork. Now in its 17th year, the competition empowers tomorrow’s talent to use their creativity, passion and diverse perspectives to solve the world’s most pressing issues.

Momentum for the Imagine Cup continues to grow—more than 2 million students from 190 countries have competed in Imagine Cup since it started—and this year, I’m excited the World Championship will be held during Build. In fact, the Imagine Cup champion will be announced to kick off Day One of the event and will be immediately followed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote.

Returning host, Corey Sanders, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Solutions, is especially fitting for the Imagine Cup—he holds four patents and was the creator of the Infrastructure-as-a-service offering for Azure, so he’s deeply familiar with the innovation cycle on many dimensions. Last year’s MC, Kate Yeager, is also making a return appearance to call the action.

Corey SandersKate Yeager

To get to the World Championship, teams must win their highly competitive regional competitions, which are wrapping up soon. These finalists have developed truly life- and world-changing ideas, like last year’s winning concept, smartARM, a robotic hand that uses a camera embedded in the palm to recognize objects and calculate the most appropriate grip for the object.

This year’s champion will take home $100,000 USD, $50,000 USD in Azure credits, mentorship from the team at M12 (formerly Microsoft Ventures) and a mentoring session with Satya Nadella. A team of business and technology professionals will collectively decide the 2019 winning team, and you can watch the championship via live stream on the Build site on Monday, May 6 at 8 a.m. Pacific Time. If you are interested in attending Build and haven’t signed up, there is still time to register.

Judges include:

  • Amy Hood, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, who leads Microsoft’s worldwide finance operations, including acquisitions, treasury activities, tax planning, accounting and reporting, and internal audit and investor relations.

Amy Hood

  • Arlan Hamilton, Founder and Managing Partner of Backstage Capital, who built a venture capital fund from the ground up, while homeless. Her firm is dedicated to minimizing funding disparities in tech by investing in high-potential founders who are people of color, women, and/or LGBTQ.

Arlan Hamilton

  • Amjad Masad, CEO and founder of it, who has dedicated his career to making programming more accessible. A founding engineer of Codecademy, he helped build the platform that introduced tens of millions of people to coding. He later joined Facebook to lead the JavaScript Infrastructure team to build and maintain developer tools like React.js. With Repl.it, he’s focused on building collaborative developer tools that lower the barriers to entry for building and shipping software.

Amjad Masad

Each year, I’m more and more impressed by the solutions created by Imagine Cup students. And I’m thrilled that hundreds of students will be joining us at Build this year to form lifelong memories while exploring what could become a future career in tech. The future is in their hands, and I’m confident they’re up for the challenge!

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Now in private preview: 2 new Azure Government Secret regions deliver cloud services to US agencies

Azure Government Secret

Enabling government to advance the mission

Today we’re announcing a significant milestone in serving our mission customers from cloud to edge with the initial availability of two new Azure Government Secret regions, now in private preview and pending accreditation. Azure Government Secret delivers comprehensive and mission enabling cloud services to US Federal Civilian, Department of Defense (DoD), Intelligence Community (IC), and US government partners working within Secret enclaves.

In addition, we’ve expanded the scope of all Azure Government regions to enable DoD Impact Level 5 (IL5) data, providing a cost-effective option for L5 workloads with a broad range of available services. With our focus on innovating to meet the needs of our mission-critical customers, we continue to provide more PaaS features and services to the DoD at IL5 than any other cloud provider.

For more than 40 years we have prioritized bringing commercial innovation to the DoD. We also continue to help our customers across the full spectrum of government, including every state, federal cabinet agency, and military branch, modernize their IT to better enable their missions.

Meeting the full spectrum of government data needs table

Microsoft is helping customers across the full spectrum of government, including departments in every state, all the federal cabinet agencies, and each military branch, modernize their IT to better achieve their missions.

Azure Government Secret now in private preview and pending accreditation

Azure Government Secret delivers comprehensive and mission enabling cloud services built with additional controls to support US agencies and partners with workloads classified by the US government at the Secret level. In addition, we’re continuing our commitment to deliver government workloads across the full range of data classifications.

Developed using the same foundational principles and architecture as Azure commercial cloud, the Azure Government Secret regions are built to maintain the security and integrity of classified workloads while enabling fast access to sensitive, mission-critical information. These dedicated datacenter regions are built with additional controls to meet the regulatory and compliance requirements for DoD Impact Level 6 (IL6) and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Intelligence Community Directive (ICD 503) accreditation.

Azure Government Secret includes two separate Azure regions in the US located over 500 miles apart, providing geographic resilience in disaster recovery (DR) scenarios and faster access to services across the country. In addition, Azure Government Secret operates on secure, native connections to classified networks, with options for ExpressRoute and ExpressRoute Direct to provide private, resilient, high-bandwidth connectivity.

These new regions operated by cleared US citizens are built for IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, and Marketplace solutions, bringing the strength of commercial innovation to the classified space. These secure regions will deliver an experience that’s consistent with Azure Government, designed for ease of procurement and alignment with existing resellers and programs.

“Azure Government Secret will enable us to take applications in legacy IT environments and move them onto a scalable, high-performance platform. This will be a great opportunity to modernize services, making them more efficient and effective for our defense customers.”

Keith Johnson, Chief Technology Officer for the Defense and Intelligence Groups, Leidos

“Microsoft has edge capabilities available now and planned for Azure Government Secret that are just game changers.”

Kim Aftergood, Managing Director, Accenture Federal Services

For more information on the private preview program, Azure Government customers can reach out to their sales representative. Azure Government Secret is available to agencies and their partners with authorized access to a connected US Government classified network.

DoD IL5 scope expands to cover to all Azure Government regions

Based on mission owner feedback and evolving security capabilities, Microsoft has partnered with the DoD to expand the IL5 Provisional Authorization (PA) granted by the DoD to all Azure Government regions. This expanded coverage provides customers with more PaaS features and services at IL5 than any other cloud provider.

This expanded range of PaaS services means mission owners can leverage managed services to be more productive. For example, development teams can use Azure App Service to quickly create cloud apps using a fully managed platform, or Azure SQL Database for a fully managed relational cloud database service that provides the broadest SQL Server engine compatibility.

In addition, mission owners will benefit from decreased latency, expanded geo-redundancy, and additional options for DR and budget optimization. Today, more than 25 services are available across all Azure Government regions at IL5, and these new systems will accelerate access to new IL5 services as they become available in Azure Government.

Customers should note, when supporting IL5 workloads on Azure Government, that isolation requirements can be met in different ways. The isolation guidelines for IL5 workloads documentation page addresses configurations and settings for the isolation required to support IL5 data.

Ensuring compliance requirements are met, audited, and enforced

In addition to rapidly releasing services for the full spectrum of government data, we’re continuing to develop programs to help customers ensure security and compliance requirements are met, audited, and enforced. We recently launched Azure Blueprints, which integrates with Azure Policy to help teams manage and enforce governance for specific compliance outcomes.

Azure Blueprints is a free service that helps customers deploy and update cloud environments in a repeatable manner using composable artifacts such as policies, deployment templates, and role-based access controls. This service is built to help customers set up governed Azure environments and can scale to support production implementations for large-scale migrations. Look for new blueprint services for Azure Government supporting FedRAMP and DoD SRG coming soon.

Helping mission customers unlock the opportunities ahead

With the initial availability of two new Azure Government Secret regions, now in private preview and pending accreditation, the expansion of DoD IL5 coverage to all Azure Government regions, and the extended Azure Blueprints program, we’re continuing our investments in innovation, security, and compliance to help customers across the full spectrum of government.

Microsoft enables the digital transformation of government by offering effective, modern, enterprise-class cloud capabilities. We are dedicated to helping our government customers accomplish critical missions with innovative and trusted cloud, productivity, and mobility solutions. We support nearly 10 million US government cloud professionals across more than 7,000 government agencies and remain committed to delivering the highest level of security and compliance necessary to meet their unique needs. 

Get started with Azure Government Secret.

Learn more about Azure Government regions.

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Podcast: AI for Earth with Dr. Lucas Joppa

Episode 72, April 17, 2019

We hear a lot these days about “AI for good” and the efforts of many companies to harness the power of artificial intelligence to solve some of our biggest environmental challenges. It’s rare, however, that you find a company willing to bring its environmental bona fides all the way to the C Suite. Well, meet Dr. Lucas Joppa. A former environmental and computer science researcher at MSR who was tapped in 2017 to become the company’s first Chief Environmental Scientist, Dr. Joppa is now the Chief Environmental Officer at Microsoft, another first, and is responsible for managing the company’s overall environmental sustainability efforts from operations to policy to technology.

Today, Dr. Joppa shares how his love for nature and the joy of discovery actually helped shape his career path, and tells us all about AI for Earth, a multi-year, multi-million dollar initiative to deploy the full scale of Microsoft’s products, policies and partnerships across four key areas of agriculture, water, biodiversity and climate, and transform the way society monitors, models, and ultimately manages Earth’s natural resources.

Related:


Final Transcript

Lucas Joppa: We’d been investing in the AI for Earth space, from a pure research perspective, for almost a decade, and it was really when Microsoft started to go all-in in AI that there was a conversation saying look, we’ve been investing in this for ten years, isn’t now the time? If not now, then when? And so I put together a memo called AI for Earth which is how we could take this out of research, take this out of incubation, deploy it across the entire company, and then allow the full kind of scope and scale of a Microsoft to put that in the hands of partner organizations all around the world.

Host: You’re listening to the Microsoft Research Podcast, a show that brings you closer to the cutting-edge of technology research and the scientists behind it. I’m your host, Gretchen Huizinga.

Host: We hear a lot these days about “AI for good” and the efforts of many companies to harness the power of artificial intelligence to solve some of our biggest environmental challenges. It’s rare, however, that you find a company willing to bring its environmental bona fides all the way to the C Suite. Well, meet Dr. Lucas Joppa. A former environmental and computer science researcher at MSR who was tapped in 2017 to become the company’s first Chief Environmental Scientist, Dr. Joppa is now the Chief Environmental Officer at Microsoft, another first, and is responsible for managing the company’s overall environmental sustainability efforts from operations to policy to technology.

Today, Dr. Joppa shares how his love for nature and the joy of discovery actually helped shape his career path, and tells us all about AI for Earth, a multi-year, multi-million dollar initiative to deploy the full scale of Microsoft’s products, policies and partnerships across four key areas of agriculture, water, biodiversity and climate, and transform the way society monitors, models, and ultimately manages Earth’s natural resources. That and much more on this episode of the Microsoft Research Podcast.

Host: Lucas Joppa, welcome to the podcast.

Lucas Joppa: Thanks for having me here.

Host: You’re the Chief Environmental Officer at Microsoft. First off, does anyone else have that, or is that unique to this company?

Lucas Joppa: I think to the best of my knowledge it’s unique to this company. I actually came from a role that was unique to this company as well. So, before I was the Chief Environmental Officer, I was the Chief Environmental Scientist. And as a former Microsoft researcher, I always told myself I didn’t want a job that didn’t have the word “scientist” in it, but as long as I kept environment in the Chief Environmental Officer, then I’m good. There are companies that have, you know, Chief Sustainability Officers and things like that, but those generally have a much more narrow purview to them than the role that I currently have.

Host: Perhaps within the company and the sustainability practices of the company or…?

Lucas Joppa: I think, you know, a traditional Chief Sustainability Officer really thinks about sustainability within the four walls of an organization. How do you reduce the negative environmental impact of an organization’s business practices? And I think that that is a very important aspect of the role. I call it a wholly necessary, but entirely insufficient criterion and for success in the environmental space. Microsoft’s 130,000 employees or so, and that’s pretty small if you look at the 7-plus billion people in the world. So, we’ve got to think about how we take our products, our policies, our partnerships, and use those to really expand our impact all around the world. We’re a tech company. We’re obsessed with scale, right? That’s what we need to be seeking with sustainability as well.

Host: Your title is kind of a spoiler alert to what kind of big problems you are looking to solve. And I usually ask that kind of off-the-bat, but give us a “Virtual Earth 3-D” view of the work you do. What gets you up in the morning?

Lucas Joppa: Ultimately, at the highest level, what gets me up in the morning is the same thing that always has, as far back as I can remember, which is just like kind of incredible sense of wonder about the world. I think, you know, I’ve just always seen my place in the cosmos and on the planet as this tiny infinitesimal spec and just, you know, been fascinated by what else is out there. And as I started to think about that more, you know, some people are super-interested in what’s up there, up in the sky, right? In outer space. I was always interested in what’s here, at home, on planet earth. And then, of course, what’s the human species’ role in that? What impact are we having? How much of that life have we discovered? That’s what, intrinsically, gets me up. I think the thing that then gets me out of bed and gets me to work every day is, what can we do to extend our knowledge base? How can we go out and actually accelerate human discovery of the rest of life on earth and then how can we use some of our tools and our science to mitigate the impact of our own human activities on earth’s natural systems? Because that last bit, that worry about human impact, that’s actually kind of what keeps me up at night, so…

Host: Part of what drives the work of researchers, and the people who work with them to bring their efforts to life, is what we don’t know, that quest for discovery, the quest for knowledge. So, what are the big knowledge gaps in environmental science, and how is computer science helping to narrow those gaps? Just general right now.

Lucas Joppa: Sure. I think if you want to couch it in the framing of the big problem that we have right now is that human society is ultimately facing probably the greatest challenge human society has ever faced. What I mean by that is, we somehow have to figure out how to adapt to and mitigate changing climates, ensure resilient water supply, sustainably feed a human population, currently at seven – growing to ten – billion people, all while stemming a catastrophic loss of biodiversity that’s going on. And so, what you have to do is, you have to know about all of earth’s systems, how we use those systems to sustain our human activities, and then, of course, how we can mitigate and manage those systems to accelerate human progress. I think just one little example that I spent a lot of time on earlier in my research career is just looking at, for instance, the number of species on earth. Actually, we’ve only scientifically discovered something like two million species, scientists estimate. It’s probably something like ten, fifteen million. We’ve only even discovered something like 20%, at best, of life on earth, and of that, you know, if look at what we actually know, a lot of that discovery is just, kind of, a specimen in a drawer with, you know, a Latin name written on it. If you look at, like, how many of those species have we actually kind of studied and we understand their populations, how their populations are faring, done kind of a full conservation assessment for any particular species, we’ve done that for about a hundred thousand species. Of the potentially ten million or more that are out there! And so, we live in this world where, you can just ask your phone how to get to the nearest Starbucks and it’s got to run a least-cost-path algorithm to find out, is it shorter to go twenty steps to the right or thirty steps to the left to get to the nearest one…

Host: Yeah.

Lucas Joppa: …that’s kind of our day-to-day problems, but, when you take a step back and you ask the human position within the rest of life on earth, I mean, we talk about an information age and, you know, information overload. Well, it comes to our understanding of environmental systems. It’s a complete and total information drought.

(music plays)

Host: Well, let’s plunge in right away and talk about AI for Earth which is a pivotal program and one that you’re spearheading here at Microsoft. The program was launched in 2017 and at the time they said it’s a five-year, fifty-million-dollar, cross-company effort to deploy the full-scale of Microsoft’s AI technologies, capabilities and research in four key areas.

Lucas Joppa: Um-hum.

Host: So, let’s start macro.

Lucas Joppa: Um-hum.

Host: And then we’ll get micro in a bit. First, give us an overview of AI for Earth, why it exists and what its core areas of focus are.

Lucas Joppa: Fundamentally, AI for Earth exists to change the way that human society monitors, models, and ultimately, manages, earth’s natural systems. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to take a technology focus on doing that. Now, when you think about the scope and the scale of the problem, how big earth is, how few people there are for such a huge sphere, and how many species there are and how many complex relationships, you realize that we need to find scalable mechanisms to monitoring and modeling earth’s natural systems. And when you’re embedded inside the tech sector as I’ve been, inside the research arm of a company like Microsoft, you realize just how rapid and incredible the progress we’re making in collecting data, analyzing data, delivering insights to users. And so, it just, for me, became clear that Microsoft should be focusing its attention in that space on environmental systems and that we should really focus on agriculture, water, biodiversity and climate change. Those four issues are inseparable from each other, by the way. I mean obviously, you need water to grow crops and you need species to pollinate crops, and you need predictable climates to be able to plant crops predictably. And so those all kind of bundle together under that higher rubric of AI for Earth and this five-year, fifty-million-dollar commitment to deploying Microsoft’s 35 years, now, of research investments in the key areas of artificial intelligence.

Host: Talk a little bit more about this idea of five years, because it’s not five years. Explain what you mean by that.

Lucas Joppa: Sure, I mean, you know, anybody that works in the tech sector understands that five years is actually a geological age, right? Five years is about as far into the future as we can possibly imagine. If you look at the research-to-product-to-deployment cycle that’s going on right now, you quickly understand that a five-year commitment in the tech sector means that you are committing to deploying technologies out into a particular space, in our case, environmental sustainability, technologies that haven’t even been invented yet! I mean, in some cases, maybe technologies that haven’t even been dreamed of yet! And so, for me, five years just is really something so far off in the horizon that it’s kind of a statement of saying, as long as we can imagine doing tech, we imagine doing tech for nature, right? The fifty-million-dollar part is important of course, but it’s way more than that because of all the other resources that come across Microsoft. And what was really interesting is everyone talks about the fifty-million-dollar, five-year commitment, but nobody talks about how we kind of launched it, with a much smaller commitment. We launched it with a two-million-dollar commitment about five months prior to the main announcement. And this is what I love about the tech sector in general, Microsoft in particular: we launched it with a two-million-dollar investment just to kind of see what the demand was. The demand was overwhelming.

Host: Right.

Lucas Joppa: And we were able to scale to meet it as quickly as we saw it. I think that for me just kind of blew my mind about the power of a large organization. You can put something out in the market, you can see market response, market demand and you can just immediately rise up and meet it. I’d been in Microsoft Research leading research programs at the intersection of environmental and computer science. That’s another thing. We’d been investing in this space, in the AI for Earth space, from a pure research perspective, for almost a decade, and it was really when Microsoft, from a corporate level, really started to go all-in in AI that there was a conversation about, just like every technology that we incubate inside Microsoft Research, there’s a question about the human tech transfer, for me, of saying look, we’ve been investing in this for ten years, isn’t now the time? If not now, then when? And so I put together a memo called AI for Earth which is how we could take this out of research, take this out of incubation, deploy it across the entire company, and then allow the full kind of scope and scale of a Microsoft to put that in the hands of partner organizations all around the world. We went from nothing to something like two hundred and fifty grantees working in all seven continents, sixty-plus countries around the world, thirty-eight or so states in the United States. For me, it’s kind of the program equivalent of seeing some feature that you developed, deployed in software that’s used by a billion people, right?

Host: Right.

Lucas Joppa: You know, just to see that incredible growth and that’s because of the thirty-five years of investment that we’ve been putting in this space.

Host: Well, we talked about four areas of focus, and I’d like to switch over and talk about the three, what you call “pillars of support” for the program. Tell us about the pillars of this program. How did you decide on them, why are they important?

Lucas Joppa: So, AI for Earth from its very beginnings, had three pillars and those pillars are super-purposeful. And they were put in place as the result of years of work in this area of recognition of what the difficulties are. And the pillars are simply access, education and co-innovation. And what I mean by that is, from an access perspective, is that most organizations that work on environmental topics aren’t the large enterprise customers of the world. They are the small, scrappy, non-profits, the chronically underfunded government agencies, the academics, the small kind of social goods start-ups. And these are organizations where resources are incredibly tight. And they often just don’t have the ability to get out ahead on kind of the digital transformation journey that they would like to because they just don’t have that little bit of excess capital that they would need to crystalize the process. And so, for me, the number one thing going into AI for Earth was just this recognition that budget simply cannot be a barrier to people using our tech for environmental sustainability. And so, the significant aspect of our budget, of that fifty-million dollars, is just to ensure that budget isn’t a barrier, that anybody who is taking kind of a machine learning- or AI-first approach to solving environmental sustainability challenges in the four areas of ag, water, biodiversity or climate, we want to get our tech in their hands. That’s great, but it ignores the fact that also, while resources are short, most of those places doing the best work, their employees didn’t graduate from the world’s leading computer science departments. Their employees graduated from the world’s leading environmental science departments. Often, some of our best tech still requires a minor in computer science to use fully effectively, you know. And so we immediately recognized that just putting tech in people’s hands that don’t know how to use it is kind of a fool’s errand. You’ve got to ensure that you follow that up with educational curricula and community building. And so, we started putting together things like AI for Earth education summits, bringing grantees from all over the world together, both in-person, and digitally. We’ve got some fantastic top technical talent on the team that also leads that education effort. And so, engineering isn’t absent from education. And then the last bit is just simply a recognition of reality, which is that the tech sector has a lot of the tech talent. And that human skill and capacity, we need to be able to put that into play as well. The thing is, we know a lot about tech and a little bit about the environment. Our partners know a whole lot about the environment and a little bit about tech. And that intersection there is where innovation actually happens, right? It’s not just collaboration. Collaboration is just like, hey, me helping you get something done or vice versa, right? But this idea that there’s something that comes out of it that’s greater than the sum of its parts, that’s what innovation for me means. And so, we looked across, and those were the three pillars. Obviously, always more to do, but…

Host: AI for Earth, writ large, has several specific projects within that really flush out how this impacts the real world. Tell us about these. It’s a lot to cover, but maybe a brief overview of each would just give our listeners sort of the basis for where you are heading with this. Silvia Terra is a big one.

Lucas Joppa: Yes. Silvia Terra is a fantastic organization. Silvia Terra is actually the name of the company, not just the project. And what they’re really looking to do is to provide a species level tree-count product across the entire United States. And this is super important because, when you think about climate change mitigation or land conservation, you have to know what is where, how much is there, and how fast is it changing. And we fundamentally don’t know that information about earth’s natural resources or the natural resources of the United States. Silvia Terra is using high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery and convolutional deep neural networks to be able to build up that data product from looking down, train up models that are able to assess not just, is there a tree there or not, but what species of trees that is, how big that tree is, what its carbon potential, etc., etc., that really is allowing people to have kind of an unprecedented view into the state of their local forest. And Silvia Terra’s work on single tree species counting and identification is just kind of a subset of a larger problem that some of my research colleagues and I here in MSR have been tackling over the past couple of years, which is trying to build a land cover product. So, not just where are the trees, but where are the forests, the fields, the built-in urban environments, the creeks and the streams and the lakes? All of that, so that you can look down and not just say, oh, that pixel is red or green or blue or it looks like a tree, but we can bring all that together for the United States at a one-meter resolution. That’s something like ten trillion pixels that you need to count up. And it’s a really hard computer science problem as well. And so, building up things like a forest map of species, a national land cover map, all of these sorts of things start to get you towards that kind of “queryable earth” that I think we’re all interested in. If you look at you know, the way we want to answer a lot of questions, it’s kind of from looking down at the world and satellite imagery and the size of these data sets, you know we’re talking about just petabytes and petabytes and petabytes of data flowing down. And so, you’ve got to store those data, you got to be able to get them into memory really quick. You know, you’ve got to be able to train up algorithms really efficiently and then you’ve got to be able to do evaluation or deploy those algorithms over even larger amounts of data. It’s a super non-trivial task getting those data labeled. I mean, it’s just a problem in and of itself. And so, you know, when people ask why environment? I mean, even if you didn’t care about an environment, from a computer science perspective, these are some of the hardest problems out there.

Host: Talk a little bit… give a nod to Farm Beats and Project Premonition because those are really two cool things that are going on.

Lucas Joppa: I’ve watched those projects, Farm Beats and Project Premonition, grow from ideas to what they are right now. I mean, Farm Beats… an incredible sensor and data-fusion project that’s really looking to revolutionize the way that farmers collect data about their field and make harvesting and growing decisions based on extremely new advances in artificial intelligence, bringing that all together. I mean, it’s kind of crazy to see the results of some of these projects because ultimately, it kind of distills down to some graphs on a browser dashboard.

Host: Right.

Lucas Joppa: And what that hides is just the incredible amount of engineering, of actual physical electronic sensors in the field, communicating over really novel communication pathways like TV white space which Ranveer is such an incredible kind of advocate and proponent for. Bringing that into centralized, on-prem compute centers, figuring out what matters, what needs bigger compute. Doing all that kind of local intelligence processing. Sending up information and data sets to our larger compute clusters in the cloud. And ultimately, just allowing somebody to come, click, and see what’s going on out in their field just from, you know, balloons floating in the air, drones flying around and sensors out there, it’s kind of incredible. And Ethan, another fantastic researcher in Microsoft Research, he’s really interested in how we monitor the biosphere, as he would say. And his kind of path into it is through understanding that we have a scale problem. He originally started out wanting to understand diseases and how we can prevent epidemics with this perspective that epidemics are so catastrophic because we don’t see them coming.

Host: Right.

Lucas Joppa: And they often come from our unbuilt natural environments. And they’re housed by the rest of life on earth and so if you want to go out and sample that, well you need to take a technology approach. But still, tech isn’t going to allow you to sample every animal on the planet everywhere. But he had the same simple idea that many have had before him which is that evolution has already provided these data samplers in the form of biting insects. Mosquitos and their kind of devilish ilk, right? And so, the question is well, how do you insert yourself in that data sampling process? If you are a metagenomicist, you see mosquitos and the blood samples they collect as simply roaming data collectors. So, now you need to figure out how to collect those data. And the engineering that Ethan and his team have put together in building these entirely new, next-generation mosquito traps that are running machine-learning algorithms on-board, that can do species-level recognition from wing beat frequency patterns, decide which species they want to collect, and then pipe those into a full metagenomics compute engine that, again, spits out some graphs and information about what diseases and other species might be out in that environment, you know, the scope and the scale, it’s… you know, as somebody who speaks about these a lot, one of the things I really struggle to get across… it seems just this horrible disservice to this entire legacy of research and innovation that goes into providing something so simple and so powerful, that people just don’t see everything that goes behind it, right?

Host: Right.

Lucas Joppa: And I think that’s kind of one of the cool things about the digital transformation that the world’s undergoing is, all of the incredibly useful applications that we have in our lives that make our lives lighter, but are powered by things that most people will never be capable of truly kind of grokking, you know, the scope and the scale of work that goes into this stuff.

Host: I love that you said the word grok. It’s one of my favorite words. It’s such a sci-fi word.

Lucas Joppa: That’s right.

Host: I think we get why the “earth” part of this program is important. But let’s talk a bit more about the AI part. What does AI do for the earth that we can’t? I think we framed this in a previous conversation as an “efficiency” story but agreed that that doesn’t quite do it justice.

Lucas Joppa: Yeah, I mean I think the way I look at it is like ultimately, we’ve got this massive scale problem on the size of the earth, the amount of living organisms on earth, the complexity of their relationships… So, there’s this massive scale problem, how do we scale? And then we have a resource problem, which is that the organizations that focus on this, for better or worse, aren’t necessarily the most well-resourced organizations in the world.

Host: Right.

Lucas Joppa: And so, where has tech always had a transformative impact? It’s in the efficiency story. And what is efficiency? Well, efficiency allows you to either do the same for less or do more for the same. And, maybe in the enterprise space when you’re worrying about margins and quarterly profits, you are really interested in doing, at the very least, the same for less, and maybe even more for less. But when you’re interested in understanding the rest of life on earth, when you’re interested in collecting data about natural systems and building models about them, and you’re wildly resource-constrained, the question you are asking yourself every day is, how do I do orders of magnitude more for the same? And technology allows you to do that. One nice story from a partner organization between the AI for Earth program, Microsoft Research and a small, non-profit called The Chesapeake Bay Conservancy, this is that land cover mapping…

Host: Right.

Lucas Joppa: …project. And, you know, we had this ambition to build a one-meter resolution land cover map for the entire United States. That’s plowing through something like ten trillion pixels, twenty-five, thirty terabytes of data, and that was an aspiration shared with this small, nineteen-person nonprofit called Chesapeake Bay Conservancy. And they were way out ahead of us mind you, because they actually had done stuff, and we just thought about it. And what they had done was they had built a one-meter resolution land cover map for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which is just a small fraction of the United States. But it had taken them well over a million dollars and over a year and a half just to produce that one data product. And so that meant that, by the time they got done, they were almost already out-of-date, right? And so, we came in and we said, hey, look, you know, the way you are doing that, we think that there’s a better way. It turned out to be really hard. It’s led to some top papers in, you know, leading conferences like CDPR and ICLR and you know, we’ve made some significant machine learning progress as well. But ultimately, we still have a long way to go on our algorithmic kind of accuracy side of things. But from just a pure infrastructure perspective, we’re able to train-up an algorithm and deploy it on a cluster of eight hundred FPGAs, so field-programmable gate arrays, which is some really cool architecture that we’ve been shipping all across Azure, and plow through all ten trillion pixels. So, go from the Chesapeake Bay to the entire United States, twenty-five terabytes of data, ten trillion pixels, ten minutes, forty-two dollars. So, that gets to, how do I do more for the same, or in this case, way more for way less? And so, that’s just the efficiency story. How do you give an individual or a small organization superpowers? You either give them a huge check or you give them technology.

(music plays)

Host: Several researchers on the pod have talked about this idea of humans in the loop. And it kind of speaks to the fact that technology isn’t taking us over, it still needs us, if we personify it, but you turned that on its head a little bit. Talk to me about your take on who’s in the loop and how and why.

Lucas Joppa: Yeah, I mean, I think what’s kind of funny is, you know, researchers are always so far out ahead that they started talking about humans in the loop probably two decades before it was relevant. They were talking about humans in the loop when we were still trying to figure out how to put algorithms in the loop, right? Where we were doing most of it, but algorithms were just kind of helping. I think, where a lot of the worry is coming, from an AI and ethics perspective or anything else, is around what the future might hold when we need to purposefully build humans into the loop so that we have these spot checks and balances and things like that. So, I still think we completely live in a world where it’s algorithms in the loop of human activity, algorithms in the loop of human life. That’s the world I want to live in. I don’t want to live in a world where it’s humans in the loop as if I’m some sort of secondary citizen to a…

Host: Addendum.

Lucas Joppa: …yeah, addendum to this digital substrate that I’m just you know allowed to exist in. You know, it’s kind of a corollary to something else that just frustrates me all the time which is that so many of the things that we don’t know about are things that we ourselves have built. So, ask me where all the world’s dams are. I don’t know. Ask me where all the world’s roads are. We built these things and we don’t even know where they are, or the state of them. And so, when you get back to this whole human in the loop concept, I fundamentally have a problem with imagining a future where I’m an addendum to something that we built. And just to prove how far-off I think we are from that is that, the things we built, as I said, like, are kind of addendums in our lives still, and I think we’d be much better focused in figuring out how to put algorithms in the loop to help us understand what we’ve built, the impact that it’s having on environmental and social systems and to build our societies around that. And that’s going to be really important as we start to ask algorithms what we should do about managing our natural systems. Where should we put renewable versus non-renewable energy? Where should we put high-density urban growth centers versus protected areas and national parks? Where should we do, you know, any number of things? Well, we don’t know enough about our own biology to tell an algorithm how we’d make that decision…

Host: Right.

Lucas Joppa: …and we don’t know enough about algorithms to understand fully why they’d make that decision. So, I think there just needs to be this awareness of, like, you know what, once the output comes out, if it feels right to me, if it looks good to me, then I’m going to continue to interrogate it with human systems and I’m going to take it one step at a time. But that’s just my opinion.

Host: When I asked you what gets you up in the morning, you basically said it was the wonder of it all, the wonder of discovery. But we’ve hit the “worry” part of the podcast. This is where I ask the guests what keeps you up at night? And aside from all the concerns about conservation and stewardship of our planet, you’re developing and deploying some incredibly powerful technologies in which we’re putting a lot of trust.

Lucas Joppa: Hmmm.

Host: What could possibly go wrong?

Lucas Joppa: Hmmm. Well, I mean, what keeps me up at night is both what could possibly go wrong, and that we won’t do it fast enough! My former manager and long-time mentor, Eric Horvitz, who leads Microsoft Research, you know, he has a long history in the health space at the intersection of health and medicine and machine learning. And one of the things that he consistently says is, people worry about the issues of algorithms in these loops and that’s completely valid and understandable, but what’s the human cost of not doing it? I think that same thing is true in environmental space, which is just, the opportunities are so incredible to help better understand and manage earth’s natural systems that we have got to be throwing basically everything that we have at it. So, my first worry is that we won’t. My first worry is that all the other tech companies won’t follow Microsoft’s lead and build up an AI for Earth program. That all of the environmental scientists and organizations won’t see tech as one of the significant breakthrough solutions in their space. And that we’ll stagnate. We won’t make the progress that we all know we need to make. So, that’s the first thing that keeps me up at night. There’s that secondary worry which is, what could go wrong? Well, I mean if history shows you anything about human activities, it’s that a whole lot could go wrong. You know, I worry more about our lack of understanding of how nature works and doing something that inadvertently has a bit of a Schrodinger’s Cat kind of effect in the sense of like are you observing what would have been observed in the absence of observation, right? I don’t actually know if that’s what Schrodinger said or not, but it sounded good…

Host: Something about a dead cat…

Lucas Joppa: Yeah, something about a dead…

Host: Or a not-dead cat.

Lucas Joppa: Yeah, something about two cats. And a box. So that’s really kind of one of the first design principles for everything that we do is, in the absence of full understanding, do you feel like you are really taking that like do no harm kind of approach? And that’s one of the reasons that we’re really interested in these kind of aspects of remote monitoring, whether that’s like taking images from above or, you know, passively listening to ecosystems with acoustic sensors, or monitoring environmental systems through the lens of an organism like a mosquito that many places are trying to eradicate anyway. And really thinking about, are we deploying technology in a way that isn’t going to further disrupt the system because the reason we’re putting technology in the system is to figure out how to fix it and stop the problems. And so, those are my two worries. You know, I work a lot, so the time between worrying, falling asleep, and wondering and waking up and getting going again is bit too short, so sometimes I feel like those two Ws go hand-in-hand.

Host: So, I like to hear the stories of the guests that come on this show, personal, professional, academic, how you ended up doing what you’re doing. How did you get started and how did you end up doing what you are doing now?

Lucas Joppa: You know, I grew up a kid that just loved being out in the woods, never was a technology kind of family. I’ve never had a TV. Didn’t have a computer until undergrad. Never learned how to program until my PhD when I realized that I probably should. But I was always just interested in how it kind of all worked. And then I started paying more attention to the fact that, in many cases, it wasn’t working, i.e., humans were negatively influencing these systems. I did my undergrad in wildlife ecology. One of the beauties of the American education system is the general education requirements. I took a general education requirement called On the Extinction of Species. I sat through that first class. I listened to this professor talk about the state of the world and I was just completely and totally hooked. Changed my major. Spent two years in the Peace Corps. Saw some of these environmental issues just kind of raw, up front, in person. Came back. Did my PhD in ecology and environmental science. That’s when I really leaned into tech, because I realized that there was no way I was going to answer the questions that I wanted to ask like, do protected areas protect? Well, there’s a lot of protected areas, all around the world. You want to ask that across the entire earth? Across every year? You’re gonna be running code to do those sorts of things. And just through kind of serendipity and contacts, ended up at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, in the UK. I had an incredible time there. And now I have this opportunity to oversee Microsoft’s global sustainability ambitions. Everything from our built environments to our technology deployment. It’s kind of a crazy thing look back and see.

Host: From a kid in the woods, to where you sit now. Among the trees here in Redmond. All right Lucas, as I said at the beginning of the podcast, you’re the Chief Environmental Officer at Microsoft. Here’s your chance to say whatever you want to our listeners. I often frame this in terms of parting thoughts, wisdom, advice, inspiration, but you can say anything you want. So, go.

Lucas Joppa: I get asked this question a lot and the thing that I always say is, don’t take the easy path which is, what do you need to succeed? And it’s easy to say, oh, I need money! Or I need resources! But when I’m talking to an audience like this, an audience of machine learning experts, computer science professionals and researchers all around the world, the message I try to consistently deliver is, all I really need is for every single person, at some point in the day to think about how they could deploy their core competency. To just think about, hey, you know what? I’m a homomorphic encryption guy. Or I’m a deep neural nets person. Or I’m a UIUX person. That’s what I’m great at! Now, how can I deploy that to help make progress in one of these massive areas of societal challenge? How can I think about accelerating human progress in the areas of ag, water, biodiversity and climate change? If you just think about that, even if you don’t have an idea today or tomorrow, if you just think about that every day, then I’m satisfied. Then we’ve made an incredible start on the problem. I don’t need every single person to pick up an identical brick. I need every person to commit to doing what they’re good at. I think so many people look, and they say, on environmental sustainability, oh, what we need is better policy. And you go over to the public sector and what they say, what we need are technology solutions. And the truth is we need all of that. And we need the people who are best at each of those things to do what they’re best at. The Microsofts of the world need to contribute tech. The public sector needs to contribute policy. And, you know, double-click all the way down in the tech sector to whatever kind of role that you have in a company like Microsoft. That’s what the world needs. The world needs what you’re best at, deployed to help solve some of these environmental challenges.

Host: Lucas Joppa, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Lucas Joppa: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge pleasure and a great opportunity.

(music plays)

To learn more about Dr. Lucas Joppa and how Microsoft is putting its powerful Cloud and AI tools into the hands of those working to solve environmental challenges, visit Microsoft.com/research

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Artificial intelligence takes on ocean trash

Inspiration sometimes arrives in strange ways. Here is the story of how a dirty disposable diaper led to the development of an artificial intelligence (AI) solution to help rid the world’s coasts of massive amounts of waste and garbage.

It starts in 2005: Camden Howitt is surfing off Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s wild west coast when, suddenly, a floating diaper smacks him in the face. He paddles back to shore in disgust, only to stumble upon a discarded toilet seat lying on the sand.

When Howitt returns home to New Zealand half a world away, his heart sinks when he sees how much trash and other refuse is also washing up on its geographically isolated, and once pristine, 15,000-kilometer (9,300-mile) coastline.

Many people might merely shrug at such a seemingly intractable global problem and see it as just too hard to fix. But not Howitt. His mission became clear: He would dedicate his life to protecting paradise.

Camden Howitt, Co-Founder of Sustainable Coastlines.

Co-Founder Sam Judd came up with the idea of forming a non-profit organization while surfing in the Galápagos Islands in 2008. A year later, the two created Sustainable Coastlines in New Zealand to educate, motivate, and empower individuals and communities to clean up and restore their coastal environments and waterways.

It was the start of an obsession, and one that has just attracted a grant from AI for Earth: Microsoft’s US$50 million, five-year commitment to put AI in the hands of those working to protect our planet across four key areas – agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, and water.

Microsoft President, Brad Smith (middle), during his visit to New Zealand with Camden Howitt (right) and Sustainable Coastlines development lead Dr Sandy Britain (left).

“This kind of initiative is exactly what our planet needs – something simple, but effective, that can easily be adopted at grass-roots level to make a difference, empowering every community to keep their environment clean and make the world a better place for future generations,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said on visit to New Zealand in March.

At Lyall Bay, near the capital Wellington, Smith braved a blustery day to see the organization’s litter-busting technology in action. He helped collect garbage from the beach, then logged and categorized it in the Sustainable Coastlines’ uniquely comprehensive database.

Since it started, Sustainable Coastlines and its growing legions of volunteers have removed enough trash from shorelines around New Zealand and the Pacific to fill the equivalent of nearly 45 shipping containers. They have picked up tens of millions of individual items, 77% of which are single-use plastic.

It’s an impressive achievement, but the problem of ocean garbage is getting worse and is a global scourge that has no boundaries. Howitt ’s vision now is “to combine my deep love for the outdoors with a passion for designing systemic tools for large-scale change.” To get there, Sustainable Coastlines has teamed up with  Microsoft and its innovative technology partner, Enlighten Designs.

To find out more, I recently visited Sustainable Coastlines’ headquarters in the nation’s most populous city, Auckland.

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern (middle), at the opening of The Flagship Education Centre, with Sam Judd (left) and Camden Howitt (right).

Howitt looks more or less how you might expect a passionate, ocean-loving environmentalist to look. His beard is long and rugged, his tan is deep, and his determination is strong. Before long he is proudly showing me around the building, The Flagship Education Center, which was opened by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in October last year.

His organization is determined to be sustainable in practice as well as in name. The building captures and recycles its own water. Membrane roofing both insulates and breaks down airborne pollutants into non-toxic by-products. All gray and black water is treated and composted on site. Its offices are powered by state-of-the-art solar panels and batteries that contribute excess power to the city’s standard electricity grid.

Later, Howitt opens up about the scale of the environmental challenges and myths confronting his homeland of long beaches and hundreds of islands at the western edge of the South Pacific. Over the years, a carefully constructed clean-and-green brand has made foreign tourism a massive money-spinner for New Zealand’s economy. And, many Kiwis honestly regard themselves as “tidy” citizens.

Yet the World Bank ranks New Zealand as the planet’s tenth-largest per capita producer of urban waste, well ahead of the United States at 19th. “That’s a top ten that no one wants to be in,” Howitt says. “As New Zealand’s population rockets and we consume like there’s no tomorrow, we could easily rise in that ranking.”

He hopes new technologies and solutions can help reverse this disturbing trend.

Enlighten Designs has built a platform that employs intelligent digital storytelling and visualization tools as part of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services suite. And, together with Microsoft, it is also developing a national litter database that will not only track the impact of clean-up efforts on waste but also generate accurate, scientifically valid data and insights.

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Meet the newest member of the Xbox One family – the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition

At Xbox, we’re inspired by gamers – they’re at the center of everything we do. We’re constantly listening to your feedback and looking for new ways to provide the best value and choice in gaming. Today, we’re excited to announce a new choice we’re bringing to gamers – the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition.

Consumer appetite for digital content and experiences are stronger today than ever before. Gaming and technology have changed quite a bit since the first Xbox debuted in 2001. During this time, we’ve seen a digital transformation across gaming, music, TV and movies. And closer to home, the success of Xbox Game Pass, which gives members access to over 100 great games, is just another example of how consumers today have grown to expect great digital content.  The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition was created for those who prefer to find and play their games digitally and are looking for the most affordable way to play Xbox games.

The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition comes bundled with three of our most compelling and popular games – Minecraft, Forza Horizon 3 and Sea of Thieves. These critically acclaimed titles are sure to offer something for everyone in the family to enjoy.

Those new players joining us can get a head start on their digital collections and discover their next favorite game through Xbox Game Pass. If you haven’t tried Xbox Game Pass yet, the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition comes with a special offer to get started with access to over 100 great games, and with new games being added all the time there will always be something new to queue in your digital library. Cord cutters will enjoy watching 4K HDR entertainment with Netflix, Amazon and more, and thousands of Xbox One games are available from the Microsoft Store digitally.

We realize price plays an important role in providing the opportunity to make console gaming more accessible to more gamers around the world. Available for pre-order today at $249.99 USD, the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition is $50 USD less than Xbox One S, and we expect to maintain at least that price difference between the two consoles going forward.

You can pick up the disc-free Xbox One S All-Digital Edition at your local Microsoft Store or online, as well as select retailers worldwide including Walmart, Best Buy and Amazon.com beginning May 7.

We’re always grateful to our fans for their continued support and look forward to continuing to bring you a diverse line of best-in-class hardware to fulfill all of your gaming needs.

Visit Xbox.com or your local retailer, including Microsoft Store, for more information.

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April 2019 Xbox Update begins rolling out

Now that we are officially in Spring, it is time to start cleaning out your game backlog. Even with so much gaming to do, we have some new features to share coming to Xbox One. The April 2019 Xbox Update includes new ways to engage with Xbox Game Pass, use the virtual keyboard, and manage your digital library. Here’s a rundown of what’s new:

Streamlined Xbox Game Pass Quests
Xbox Game Pass Quests are better than ever! As this feature rolls out, you will be able to access quests progress directly from the dash and browse all quests from My Profile. Start earning rewards for playing great games, jump in and try out Xbox Game Pass quests!

Mini Virtual Keyboard
We understand that navigating a virtual keyboard can be a challenge whether you’re writing an LFG post for Apex Legends or inputting a 5×5 code for a new game. In order to improve this experience, we are releasing a new mini virtual keyboard option for Xbox One. This new virtual keyboard takes up less screen space, streamlining the typing experience. If you prefer or require the bigger keyboard for accessibility, it is still available and can be enabled in Settings -> Ease of Access -> Magnifier -> Larger Keyboard.

Restart added to Power Center
Based on user feedback, we have added a new option to restart the console to the Power Center. You can now access this feature quickly by holding down the Xbox button on the controller to bring up the Power Center instead of having to navigate to it within the System tab.

Improved Uninstall
When you try to install a new game or app today, we send you to your collection to choose what to remove if your hard drive is full. As of the April 2019 Xbox Update, we will now suggest titles that will free up enough space for your install. To make things even easier it will automatically kickoff the install once the space is freed up!

You can also get to the new Drive Manager page via Settings > System > Storage to easily manage your existing content and uninstall multiple titles at once.

Programmable OneGuide Button on Xbox Media Remote
The Xbox Media Remote is updated to allow the OneGuide button to be reprogrammed to launch a media app instead of OneGuide. This is a great shortcut to jump into your favorite media app and start watching.

These updates are available based on the input from our Xbox Insiders who have helped shape these features. Thank you to all of you for your valuable input and continued participation. If you’d like to help define the future of Xbox and get access to early features, download the Xbox Insider Hub app on your Xbox One or Windows 10 PC today and share your ideas at the Xbox Ideas Hub. You can also visit the Xbox Insider Blog here for the latest release notes and to learn more. Enjoy the April Update and happy gaming!

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Australia’s Downer uses AI, intelligent cloud and IoT to optimize train maintenance

Mike Ayling has trains in his blood; both his grandfathers were train drivers and told stories about the old steam train days when bacon and egg breakfasts could be cooked on a coal shovel.

“If my grandfathers could see what we’re doing now, I think they’d be blown away in terms of the phenomenal advancement in technology,” he says.

“The improved safety aspects alone align to the real focus that we have on zero harm and making sure our employees get home safely,” says Ayling who is the General Manager of Digital Technology and Innovation at Downer which in 2011 commenced a 30-year contract with the NSW Government to manage and maintain the fleet of 78 Waratah trains.

In December 2016 the NSW Government ordered 24 Waratah Series 2 trains under its Sydney Growth Trains Project and in February 2019, announced its decision to order an additional 17 Waratah Series 2 trains and providing more passengers with improved safety and comfort due to enhanced air-conditioning systems, more CCTV cameras and improved accessibility.

Building on the success of the original Waratah trains which continue to show exceptional performance in terms of reliability and availability, Waratah Series 2 represents a new opportunity to leverage additional sensor data from the fleet.

As each Waratah train pulls in and out of a Sydney station, more than 300 Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and almost 90 cameras are silently capturing data and recording video.

Every ten minutes 30,000 signals are sent from the train to Downer. Those 30,000 signals represent the train’s digital DNA.

Ayling says; “We pretty much check everything on the train, from the bottom up, from the wheels – obviously the wheels are the most important thing in terms of the train, because that’s the thing that keeps them on the tracks. We’re very conscious of making sure the wheels are always safe, and then the bogies and traction systems, the interiors as well, making sure the CCTV cameras are always working and operational. Then at the top of the train the pantographs are making sure it gets electricity to the train.

“Essentially these are trains with brains. We’re getting 30,000 signals from each train every 10 minutes. You extrapolate that out, we now have billions of data points since the inception of the fleet.

“We’re using those sensors to tell us about the health of the train – it’s almost like having a blood pressure reading,” which, Ayling says, provides Downer with the insights it and its engineers need to ensure trains continue to operate safely and reliably.

It’s helping to automate inspections, and also the opportunity to optimise operations and introduce predictive maintenance, saving time and money. The platform puts the information directly into the hands of engineers, streamlining process and reducing the risks of miscommunication or delay.

Ayling explains that in the past although the company had the raw data, it struggled to make sense of it or get it to the people who needed it, when they needed it. That means that; “we can’t take advantage of all the raw data coming off the train to optimise our decision making.”

He knew that the right technology platform would be able to turn the raw data into actionable insights. There have been a number of attempts over the years – however it’s taken a Microsoft Azure based solution, developed by Downer, to deliver real change.

Downer entered into a strategic alliance with Microsoft in 2017 to co-operatively develop and market cloud-based solutions and services for specific industry sectors. The alliance, which sees both parties bring their technology and sector specific know-how to the table, was designed to help accelerate the rate at which transformational value could be unlocked for business.

Jason Pearce, General Manager Technology for Downer Digital Data Services, says that the rollingstock services business of Downer was one of the early adopters of its Azure based data platform, used as a backend for their TrainDNA solution. The platform has been deployed to capture and store all Downer’s IoT data, along with other important data feeds, overlaid with data analytics and visualisation tools to make sense of the information and allow Downer engineers to act on it.

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Brad Smith: We’re increasing our carbon fee as we double down on sustainability

Phot of forest trees being inventoried
Image of trees with data and insights provided by Microsoft AI.

Since 2009, Microsoft has made and met a series of commitments to reduce the company’s carbon footprint. While we’ve made progress toward our goal of cutting our operational carbon emissions by 75 percent by 2030, the magnitude and speed of the world’s environmental changes have made it increasingly clear that we must do more. And we are taking new steps to do just that.

Today, we are announcing that we will nearly double our internal carbon fee to $15 per metric ton on all carbon emissions. This internal Microsoft “tax” was established in 2012 to hold our business divisions financially responsible for reducing their carbon emissions. The funds from this higher fee will both maintain Microsoft’s carbon neutrality and help us take a tech-first approach that will put sustainability at the core of every part of our business and technology to work for sustainable outcomes. In practice, this means we’ll continue to keep our house in order and improve it, while increasingly addressing sustainability challenges around the globe by engaging our strongest assets as a company – our employees and our technologies.

Today, I’d like to share new steps we’re taking in four areas:

Building sustainable campuses and data centers

We will continue to build, renovate and operate our campuses in a manner that reduces our impact on the environment. At our headquarters in Redmond, Washington, we have started work to construct 17 new buildings totaling 2.5 million square feet. We will remove fossil fuels from these new buildings and run this new addition, as well as the rest of our campus, on 100 percent carbon-free electricity. We are also reducing the amount of carbon associated with the construction materials of our new buildings by at least 15 percent, with a goal of reaching 30 percent, through a new online tool. Combined with our smart building technology, Microsoft will be the first large corporate campus to reach zero-carbon and zero-waste goals.

In our data centers, we will continue to focus on R&D for efficiency and renewable energy. In 2016, we announced that we would power our data centers with more renewable energy, setting a 50 percent target by the end of 2018 and topping 60 percent early in the next decade while continuing to improve from there. We hit the first target nearly a year ahead of schedule, and today we are sharing the news that we will reach the 60 percent milestone before the end of this year. We’re therefore setting our next milestone on the path to 100 percent renewable energy, aiming to surpass the 70 percent target by 2023. We’ll also launch a new data-driven circular cloud initiative using the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor performance and streamline our reuse, resale and recycling of data center assets, including servers.

We will also add water to our long-standing carbon and energy commitments, launching a new water replenishment strategy where we will replace what our operations consume in water-stressed regions by 2030.

Accelerating research through data science

Data is a critical part of our work and a global transition to a low-carbon future. Data can help tell us about the health of our planet, including the conditions of our air, water, land and the well-being of our wildlife. But we need technology’s help to capture this vast amount of data and convert it into actionable intelligence. Despite living in the Information Age, when it comes to environmental data we are still too often flying without real insights.

We founded our AI for Earth program in 2017 with this challenge in mind. Since then, we’ve launched two new APIs that help provide the scale and flexibility to transform how people working on sustainability issues process data and generate valuable insights. More than 230 grantees are now using Azure and AI to create new models and discover new insights. But we have learned there’s still more we can do to accelerate this work.

Today, we’re committing to hosting the world’s leading environmental data science sets on Azure. These large government datasets contain satellite and aerial imagery, among other things, and require petabytes of storage. By making them available in our cloud, we will advance and accelerate the work of grantees and researchers around the world. We will also continue work to bring new APIs and applications to the AI for Earth gallery and mature projects into platform-level services as we’ve done with land cover mapping.

Helping our customers build sustainable solutions

As the world’s needs heighten, we are working more closely than ever with our customers to use digital technology and AI to address sustainability challenges. We are making this an increasing focus across every part of our company, and in the coming months we’ll share more details about our plans to develop and deploy products to facilitate our customers’ and partners’ growth with sustainability in mind.

Already we’re helping empower our customers and partners with new technology to help them drive efficiencies, transform their businesses, and create their own solutions to create a more sustainable planet. At Microsoft we call this infusion of technology tech intensity, and we’re seeing it propel sustainable growth around the globe. Let me share a few examples.

Companies like Ecolab and Ørsted are improving water conservation and efficiency of renewable energy with Microsoft Azure, IoT and AI. Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy has deployed a digital solution called Hermes with autonomous drones to inspect turbines and is now building on this with Azure AI to improve operations further to help make renewable energy more affordable and the future more sustainable. Bühler, one of the world’s leading grain processing providers, keeps food healthy and safe for 2 billion people every day. Their goal is to reduce 30 percent of waste and 30 percent of energy that goes into food production processing for customers by 2020. Silvia Terra, a small start-up, is focused on using AI to improve our understanding of forests and better manage these economic and environmental assets. Through its work with AI for Earth, they’ve completed a national inventory of forests, down to the tree level.

These companies’ technology breakthroughs offer a blueprint for sustainable economic growth. New research we commissioned with Pricewaterhouse Coopers UK (PwC UK) shows that greater adoption of AI across even a few sectors has the potential to boost global GDP by up to 4.4 percent, while also reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 4 percent. This is approximately 2.4 gigatons of CO2, equivalent to zeroing out the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined.

Advocating for environmental policy change

Finally, public policy has an important role in creating enabling environments to accelerate the reduction of carbon emissions. That is why we’re joining today the Climate Leadership Council (CLC). CLC is an international policy institute founded with business leaders – many of whom are our customers – as well as economists and environmental leaders to promote a national carbon pricing approach. In addition to our internal carbon tax, we supported the recent Washington state ballot measure on pricing carbon and believe it’s time for a robust national discussion on carbon pricing to lower emissions in an economically sound way.

Addressing these global environmental challenges is a big task. Meeting this raised ambition will take the work of everyone across Microsoft, as well as partnerships with our customers, policymakers and organizations around the world. This road map is far from complete, but it’s a first step in our renewed commitment to sustainability. Time is too short, resources too thin and the impact too large to wait for all the answers to act. There’s an incredible opportunity to be realized by acting, supported by data and technology, on climate change. We are starting our journey to embrace that challenge and enhance opportunities for everyone on the planet today.

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