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Microsoft Diving Deeper on AI, Invests in Montreal Research Lab

Dec. 13, 2016
Microsoft is betting big on artificial intelligence as a key component for Azure and Cortana — even creating a 5,000-person AI group by combining several existing businesses.

Microsoft Corp.’s venture arm started an artificial intelligence-focused fund, kicking it off with an investment in a startup by a luminary in the field.

Element AI, a Montreal-based research lab started by Yoshua Bengio and others, will get an undisclosed amount from Microsoft Ventures, Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft said in a statement Monday. The size of the fund, which will back AI companies, wasn't disclosed.

"The kinds of companies in this fund will help people and machines work together to increase access to education, teach new skills and create jobs, enhance the capabilities of existing workforces and improve the treatment of diseases, to name just a few examples," Nagraj Kashyap, who heads Microsoft Ventures, wrote in a blog post.

Element AI helps develop and release technologies in partnerships with large companies and research institutions. Bengio is computer-science professor at the University of Montreal and a founder of the field of deep learning, an area of AI that's modeled on how humans process information. Element's other co-founders are CEO Jean-François Gagne, Nicolas Chapados and Jean-Sébastien Cournoyer.

The fund and investment in Element AI is the latest step as Microsoft embraces AI technology through hiring, new products and alliances with key leaders in the field amid fierce competition with Google, Facebook Inc., Apple Inc., Inc. and other competitors. Last month, Microsoft struck a partnership with Elon Musk's artificial intelligence research group, OpenAI, and said the organization will use the company's Azure cloud system for most of its large-scale experiments. 

Microsoft is betting big on artificial intelligence as a key component for Azure and its Cortana voice-enabled assistant, as well as for new products and research areas such as fighting cancer. In September, Microsoft created a 5,000-person AI group under Harry Shum by combining several existing businesses.

By Dina Bass

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