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Microsoft ramps up AI play with Bonsai buy

Microsoft ramps up AI play with Bonsai buy

Acquisition comes amid a string of recent acquisitions for the software giant

Credit: Dreamstime

Microsoft has struck a deal to acquire Californian machine learning start-up Bonsai as part of its efforts to give developers the ability to code and integrate pre-built and custom artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities into applications.

The Bonsai AI Platform, which packages machine learning libraries, AI development techniques, and a host of APIs and SDKs, is designed to enable subject matter experts to program their expertise directly into an AI model and teach it how to solve real-world business problems.

“Today we are excited to take another major step forward in our vision to make it easier for developers and subject matter experts to build the ‘brains’ – machine learning model for autonomous systems of all kinds with the signing of an agreement to acquire Bonsai,” Microsoft business AI corporate vice president Gurdeep Pall said in a blog post.

Bonsai is an M12 portfolio company – that is, the company has been supported by the vendor’s corporate venture capital business, which was formerly known as Microsoft Ventures.

According to Pall, the start-up has developed a novel approach using machine teaching that abstracts the low-level mechanics of machine learning, so that subject matter experts, regardless of AI aptitude, can specify and train autonomous systems to accomplish tasks.

“The actual training takes place inside a simulated environment,” Pall said.

Specifically, the company is building a general-purpose, deep reinforcement learning platform suited for enterprises leveraging industrial control systems such as robotics, energy, HVAC, manufacturing and autonomous systems.

For Pall, the shift from simply funding Bonsai via its ventures arm and becoming the parent company of the start-up is expected to substantially boost Microsoft’s AI tool kit.

“Bringing intelligence to autonomous systems at scale will require a unique combination of the new practice of machine teaching, advances in deep reinforcement learning and leveraging simulation for training,” Pall said.

“Bonsai’s platform combined with rich simulation tools and reinforcement learning work in Microsoft Research becomes the simplest and richest AI toolchain for building any kind of autonomous system for control and calibration tasks.

“This toolchain will compose with Azure Machine Learning running on the Azure Cloud with GPUs and Brainwave, and models built with it will be deployed and managed in Azure IoT, giving Microsoft an end-to-end solution for building, operating and enhancing ‘brains’ for autonomous systems,” he said.

The latest acquisition comes off the back of a series of big deals struck by Microsoft recently, with the company confirming on 4 June its US$7.5 billion deal to acquire GitHub, followed quickly by a move to buy up video-based social learning platform Flipgrid.

Flipgrid is used by schools, teachers and students in 180 countries around the world, including Australia.


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