Microsoft on Wednesday unveiled new tools intended to democratize artificial intelligence by enabling machine smarts to be built into software from smartphone games to factory floors.
The US technology titan opened its annual Build Conference by highlighting programs with artificial intelligence that could tap into services in the internet "cloud" and even take advantage of computing power in nearby machines.
"We are infusing AI into every product and service we offer," said Microsoft executive vice president of artificial intelligence and research Harry Shum.
"We've been creating the building blocks for the current wave of AI breakthroughs for more than two decades."
Microsoft research has gone deep into areas such as machine learning, speech recognition, and enabling machines to recognize what they "see."
"Now, we're in the unique position of being able to use those decades of research breakthroughs," Shum said.
Microsoft rivals including Amazon, Apple, Google and IBM have all been aggressively pursing the promise and potential of artificial intelligence.
Artificial intelligence is getting a foothold in people's homes, with personal assistants answering questions and controlling connected devices such as appliances or light bulbs.
Digital assistants already boast features such as reminding people of appointments entered into calendars and chiming in with advice to set out early if traffic is challenging.
Steering away from '1984'
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, who opened the Seattle conference, also highlighted the need to build trust in technology, saying new applications must avoid the dystopian futures feared by some.
Nadella's presentation included images from George Orwell’s "1984" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" to underscore the issue of responsibility of those creating new technologies.
"What Orwell prophesied in '1984,' where technology was being used to monitor, control, dictate, or what Huxley imagined we may do just by distracting ourselves without any meaning or purpose," Nadella said.
"Neither of these futures is something that we want... The future of computing is going to be defined by the choices that you as developers make and the impact of those choices on the world."
Microsoft's aim on Wednesday was on businesses and software developers, whether they be students building a fun app or professional technology teams.
"Microsoft is trying to use AI for businesses to solve business problems and app developers to make applications better," said Moor Insights and Strategy principal analyst Patrick Moorhead.
"Which is different from Amazon, Facebook, and Google whose primary business model is to mine personal information using AI to sell you things or put ads in front of you."
Microsoft is taking a unique approach by letting developers customize gesture commands, voice recognition and more instead of making them conform to settings in "off-the-shelf" AI, according to the analyst.
Microsoft executives used demonstrations to provide a glimpse into a near future in which artificial intelligence hosted online works with internet linked devices such as construction site cameras to alert workers of dangers, available tools, or unauthorized activities.
Devices like smart surveillance cameras, smartphones, or factory floor machines were referred to as "edge computing," with the coordination of cloud power and intelligent edge devices improving productivity and safety on the ground.
Windows numbers rise
Nadella also told developers that some 500 million devices now run on Microsoft's latest Windows 10 operating system, creating a huge audience for their software creations.
Microsoft's online Office 365 service has some 100 million commercial users monthly, while Cortana digital assistant is used by 140 million people monthly, according to the Redmond, Washington-based technology firm.
"The future is a smart cloud," Nadella said, forecasting a future in which mobile devices take back seats to digital assistants hosted in the cloud that follow people from device to device.
"It is a pretty amazing world you can create using intelligent cloud and intelligent edge."