Machine learning to get its day in the Redmond sun

Get your buzzword bingo scorecards ready. Machine learning is Microsoft executives' newest favorite phrase.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Get ready to hear lots and lots about machine learning from Microsoft.

The same way that "cloud computing" and "big data" became all-consuming watchwords almost overnight at Microsoft, machine learning seems poised to become the same.

Machine learning isn't a new concept. It's been considered a key pillar of the artificial intelligence field for decades. Machine learning is, as its name implies, all about automatically improving system performance, using techniques like data mining, autonomous discovery, database updating and the like.

In the past week alone, I've seen and heard folks across several different Microsoft divisions talking up Microsoft's presence in machine learning -- including a mention from the creator of C#, Anders Hejlsjberg, who recently said he thinks machine learning is going to be the next big thing.

Microsoft Research has had a fairly sizable dedicated machine learning team for years. It just never got a lot of mentions from Microsoft management. But over the past few months, this slowly has begun to change. Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer, has been working machine learning mentions into more and more of his talks. He also called out machine learning as a hot topic during a recent TV appearance on CNBC.

Then there's this new article from Xconomy. It's an interview with Jennifer Chayes, Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England. From that piece:

“We have been getting a lot of attention around Xbox and Kinect,” (Chayes) says. “That’s our new cool thing, our new shiny toy, which is a lot more than a toy. I think it will be in every aspect of our enterprise [business] as well as our consumer and the living room and all that. But, beyond that, machine learning is becoming such a big part of what we do.”

The article details a few of Microsoft Research's machine learning projects. One is "machine learning for the cloud," via which the team uses machine learning algorithms to help startups and other organizations bid properly for Azure cloud-computing resources. Another is focused on categorizing images which are similar to one another to help users find the pictures for which they're searching more easily.

Another project is about "programming by example," which is being led by Microsoft Technical Fellow Butler Lampson, among others. The Xconomy article explains it this way:

"(T)his one involves a computer learning a sequence of steps by watching how a person goes through a repetitive task such as formatting bibliographic references or sorting addresses for invitations or greeting cards. The idea is the computer can learn to do the formatting automatically. (You might imagine something like this being incorporated into a future version of Office or Excel.)"

Another Microsoft Research project that the Softies are touting as an example of machine learning in action is the Lifebrowser, which helps predict landmark life events.

Will we see any "We're all in with machine learning" campaigns from Redmond any time soon? Doubtful, but if you're into buzzword bingo, you now have a new phrase for your scorecards....

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