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Microsoft commits $40m to five-year push to explore 'AI for human good' use cases

Microsoft wants to encourage non-government organisations and humanitarian groups to help it explore potential use cases for artificial intelligence during times of natural disasters

Microsoft is embarking on a five-year, $40m programme to explore how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to bolster the response of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to humanitarian disasters.

The AI for Humanitarian Action programme will focus on using AI technologies to assist select NGOs throughout the world working on projects in four key areas.

These include NGOs and humanitarian organisations involved in responding to natural disasters, child protection incidents, refugee crisis situations and human rights abuses, who Microsoft will support by offering grants and investments.

“While global relief organisations scramble to respond to these events, their work by definition is often reactive and difficult to scale. We believe that technology, like artificial intelligence combined with cloud, can be a game changer, helping save more lives, alleviate suffering and restore human dignity by changing the way frontline relief organisations anticipate, predict and better target response efforts,” said Microsoft president, Brad Smith, in a blog post announcing the initiative’s launch.

“We will work deeply with selected NGOs and humanitarian organisations through financial grants, technology investments and partnerships that combine our AI and data science know-how with these groups’ core expertise.”

The initiative forms part of Microsoft’s wider AI for Good campaign. Since its launch in July 2017, this work has already seen the software giant commit to spending $115m over five years on AI research projects designed to help address some of society’s biggest challenges, including accessibility and environmental sustainability.

The work is also designed to highlight ways that AI can be used as a “compelling force for good” in the NGO sector, added Smith.

“By ensuring technology fulfils its promise to address the broadest societal needs, we can empower everyone to achieve more,” he said.

News of the announcement coincides with the start of Microsoft’s Ignite customer and developer conference in Orlando, Florida, where the firm is set to reiterate its view that cloud combined with big data and AI will have a transformational impact on enterprises in the years to come.

In the lead up to Ignite, Microsoft announced oil and gas giant Shell as an example of an enterprise that is combining the Azure cloud with AI technologies in both its upstream and downstream business.

The show is also set to see Microsoft announce a number of new additions and enhancements to its AI product portfolio, which will include the invitation-only launch of its Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise.

The offering is designed to help enterprises integrate Cortana into their business processes, so that employees can use voice and natural language to get Microsoft’s virtual assistant technology to carry out company-specific tasks.

The importance of lowering the skills and technical barriers to AI and machine learning has emerged as a recurring talking point among the public cloud giants in recent years, and Ignite is also set to see Microsoft set out how its efforts on this front are progressing too.

As such, Microsoft is set to announce expanded functionality for its data science-focused Azure Machine Learning service, which is designed so that businesses of any size can build and train machine learning models to make predictions based on their datasets.

This expanded functionality is set to include a new automated AI tool that Microsoft claims will automatically tweak and correct machine learning models that are already in use, and additional tools that will allow developers to add speech recognition capabilities to their products.

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