Microsoft Ventures launches dedicated AI fund


Stepping up efforts to capitalize on the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, Microsoft Corp. said today that it’s launching a new fund dedicated exclusively to artificial intelligence.

Nagraj Kashyap (above), the head of the company’s venture capital arm, said Microsoft is looking to back AI startups with, not surprisingly, “potential for strong financial returns” and a focus on important technological issues. He listed medical research, climate change mitigation and worker training as three of the areas where his company will be seeking to make investments.

The first beneficiary of the new fund is Element AI, a Montreal-based firm research firm that operates a cutting-edge lab for performing artificial intelligence research. Cofounded by renowned AI researcher Yoshua Bengio, Element AI has as its main goal to support the work of local startups trying to apply neural networks in new fields. Microsoft’s Kashyap said that will his team not only will continue to back more such firms going forward, but the “overall pace of investments will accelerate” as well.

The push is part of a companywide effort to address the widening use of artificial intelligence that extends far beyond startup investments. Last month, the initiative saw Microsoft become the primary cloud provider for OpenAI, a research institution backed by Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Elon Musk that focuses on broadening the cognitive capabilities of computers.

The company announced the partnership alongside a new managed developer tool called Azure Bot Service that promises to help companies develop chat-based virtual agents more easily. It’s based on a conversational artificial intelligence framework that Microsoft released in March, shortly after open-sourcing the CNTK deep learning neural network engine that its researchers use internally. The latter technology was recently renamed to “Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit” so as better reflect its purpose.

The software giant’s multipronged push into the artificial intelligence world comes as other fellow tech giants such as Alphabet Inc. and IBM Corp. also move in on the opportunity. It was only two weeks ago that Big Blue partnered with Pfizer Inc., one of the world’s largest  drugmakers, to customize its Watson cognitive computing platform for researching cancer treatments. The company is applying the system to a broad spectrum of areas ranging from fighting hackers to automating supply chain operations.

Photo courtesy of Microsoft