On Monday, day one of its annual developer conference Build 2018, technology behemoth Microsoft showcased a raft of new technologies designed to give developers all the tools they need for artificial intelligence (AI) and solutions.
Among the projects is the new Microsoft Azure Blockchain Workbench, which the company claims makes it easier to develop blockchain applications by stitching together an Azure-supported network with cloud services like Azure Active Directory, Key Vault and SQL Database, reducing proof-of-concept development time dramatically.
Microsoft said it expects more than 20 billion smart devices to be in homes and businesses around the world by 2020, powering advanced ways to see, listen, reason and predict, without constant connectivity to the cloud.
Against this background, the new capabilities announced by Microsoft will allow developers to operate at the intelligent edge of the cloud, the company said, with opportunities for consumers, businesses and entire industries, from the operating room to the factory floor.
“The era of the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge is upon us,” said Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft, in a statement. “These advancements create incredible developer opportunity and also come with a responsibility to ensure the technology we build is trusted and benefits all.”
Microsoft said that its open sourcing of Azure IoT Edge Runtime will allow customers to modify, debug and have more transparency and control for edge applications, while Custom Vision will now run on Azure IoT Edge, enabling devices such as drones and industrial equipment to take critical action quickly without requiring cloud connectivity. The company said this is the first Azure Cognitive Service to support edge deployment, with more coming to Azure IoT Edge over the next several months.
Microsoft is also partnering with DJI, the world’s biggest drone company, to create a new SDK for Windows 10 PCs, and DJI has selected Azure as its preferred cloud provider to further its commercial drone and SaaS solutions. The SDK will bring full flight control and real-time data transfer capabilities to nearly 700 million Windows 10 connected devices, globally. As part of the commercial partnership, DJI and Microsoft plan to co-develop solutions leveraging Azure IoT Edge and Microsoft’s AI services to enable new scenarios across agriculture, construction, public safety and more.
Another partnership with Qualcomm Technologies will create a vision AI developer kit running Azure IoT Edge, providing the key hardware and software required to develop camera-based IoT solutions. Developers can create solutions that use Azure Machine Learning services and take advantage of the hardware acceleration available via Qualcomm’s Vision Intelligence Platform and AI Engine. The camera can also power advanced Azure services, such as machine learning, stream analytics and cognitive services, which can be downloaded from the cloud to run locally on the edge.
Microsoft also highlighted how developers can build and manage AI-rich solutions to transform the ways people work, collaborate and live, using data, machine learning and cognitive intelligence.
Project Kinect for Azure involves a package of sensors, including Microsoft’s next-generation depth camera, with onboard compute designed for AI on the Edge. This will build on Kinect’s legacy, Microsoft said, empowering new scenarios for developers working with ambient intelligence.
By combining Microsoft’s Time of Flight sensor with additional sensors all in a small, power-efficient form factor, Project Kinect for Azure will leverage the richness of Azure AI to dramatically improve insights and operations, the company said.
Also announced at Build 2018 is a Speech Devices SDK, which delivers audio processing from multichannel sources for more accurate speech recognition, including noise cancellation, far-field voice and more. With this, developers can build a variety of voice-enabled scenarios like drive-thru ordering systems, in-car or in-home assistants, smart speakers, and other digital assistants.
Addressing the potential for database services, Microsoft’s Azure Cosmos DB updates will be designed to support both the cloud and the edge, along with the VNET general availability for increased security. With these new updates, Microsoft said Cosmos DB delivers even greater cost-effectiveness and global scale, further cementing it as the fastest-growing database service in the world.
The company also previewed its Project Brainwave architecture for deep neural net processing, which is now available on Azure and on the edge. Project Brainwave makes Azure the fastest cloud to run real-time AI and Microsoft said it is now fully integrated with Azure Machine Learning, while supporting Intel FPGA hardware and ResNet50-based neural networks.
Additionally, new Azure Cognitive Services updates include a unified Speech service with improved speech recognition and text-to-speech, which support customized voice models and translation. Along with Custom Vision, these updates make it easier for any developer to add intelligence to their applications, according to the statement.
Microsoft said it is making Azure the best place to develop conversational AI experiences integrated with any agent and new updates to Bot Framework and Cognitive Services will power the next generation of conversational bots enabling richer dialogs, and full personality and voice customization to match the company’s brand identity.
Other mixed reality technologies highlighted at the event include Microsoft Remote Assist, which allows its customers remote collaboration with heads-up, hands-free video calling, image sharing, and mixed-reality annotations. Firstline Workers can share what they see, while staying hands-on to solve problems and complete tasks.
Another tech giant looking to put its stamp on blockchain development is Oracle, which recently outlined its platform as a service blockchain effort, which is expected to be followed by dApps. In addition to working with pharmaceutical firms to track the supply of medicine batches, it has projects underway with Banco de Chile and the Nigerian government, which is looking to reshape its system of documenting customs and import duties.