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Microsoft to double the size of its Montreal AI lab

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Montreal
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Microsoft has announced it will double the size of its Montreal research lab over the next two years.

Once the work is complete, 75 skilled engineers will work at the facility under the leadership of new director Geoffrey Gordon, a renowned AI expert.

Worldwide AI hub

While at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed the company’s investments in Canada with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In a news post, Microsoft acknowledged Montreal is becoming a “worldwide hub” for developments in AI and machine learning.

Microsoft is following several other major tech companies in stepping up its presence in the Montreal AI scene. Companies including Facebook and Samsung have recently opened new facilities in the city as it becomes one of the top global locations to source AI talent.

Microsoft said its expanded research lab will develop foundational AI systems that progress the fundamentals of the technology. This work will then help to build new Microsoft products for mainstream consumer and commercial use. Gordon’s background in both foundational and applied AI will enable the lab to work on a broad range of technologies for incorporation into Microsoft services.

“We want to be doing the research that will be infusing AI into Microsoft products today and tomorrow, and Geoff’s research really spans that,” said Jennifer Chayes, a Microsoft Research managing director and technical fellow.

AI that plans

One area the lab will focus on is the development of AI with long-term planning. AI currently struggles to combine actions into a logical plan for future execution. Although modern AI is adept at certain tasks, such as computer vision and voice recognition, it’s less capable of combining inputs, reasoning and then chaining different outcomes in response.

Microsoft’s already been working on developing new ways for AI to handle complex tasks. The additional resources available at the larger lab should enable new breakthroughs to be made in the field. This will help create smarter AI agents and information processors that have similar thought processes to humans.

With Microsoft as the latest company to invest in Montreal, Canada’s AI credentials are growing yet stronger. The company was welcomed by Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development.

“I am pleased that our government’s investment and skills continues to position Canada as a world-leading destination for AI companies and impressive researchers like Geoff Gordon,” he said.

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Amazon rival Rakuten buys mobile ordering and pickup startup Curbside

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ecommerce
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Rival to Amazon and Japanese retail giant Rakuten has acquired Silicon Valley mobile ordering and pickup startup Curbside. Details of the all-cash deal were not disclosed, but the acquisition could be a boon for the Japanese e-commerce company.

Mobile solutions for brick and mortar businesses

Founded in 2013 by former Apple engineers Jaron Waldman and Denis Laprise, Curbside has a suite of features that deal with all aspects of mobile commerce for restaurants and brick and mortar retail stores. Their most popular feature, ARRIVE, tracks customer’s journeys to predict when they’ll be approaching and arriving to have the product ready in an instant.
In its suite, Curbside’s offers programs that build online storesfill online orders in-store and grow store traffic.

According to Tech Crunch, the terms of the “all-cash” deal were not released. Curbside has previously raised between USD$40 and $50 million from investors like CVS, Index Ventures, Sutter Hull Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures and Chicago Ventures

According to the Silicon Valley Business Journal, Curbside was valued at more than USD$100 million in 2015 during its last venture round.

Part of the family

In the press release from Curbside, co-founder and CEO Jaron Waldman writes, “For our customers and partners the headline is that nothing will change. Curbside will operate independently as a Rakuten-owned company with our team, services, partners and product offerings all remaining intact.”

Yaz Iida, President of Rakuten USA, Inc said in a press release “Welcoming Curbside to the Rakuten family is all about the consumer, and we are excited to be able to empower consumers with even more ways to enjoy shopping.”

Mario Pinho, CFO of Rakuten, welcomed Curbside “to the Rakuten family” on LinkedIn.

Earlier this year, Rakuten announced that it’s building a customer loyalty program based on blockchain technology, and building its own cryptocurrency, Rakuten Coin.

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How brick and mortar grocers benefit from digital transformation

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grocery store
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Brick and mortar grocery retailers have the potential to adopt artificial intelligence to help with stocking their stores, pricing their products and being competitive with online retailers like Amazon.

Michael Feindt, the founder of AI firm Blue Yonder that specializes in helping retailers adopt AI to change how they carry out their core processes, wrote an article in Silicon Republic about how grocery chains can use AI to operate smarter.

With online grocers rapidly adopting AI, Feindt writes that it’s important for brick and mortar retailers to “move beyond their legacy infrastructure and adopt the technologies of digital transformation.” These technologies include AI and machine learning.

To stay competitive in a market that’s increasingly focused on consumer satisfaction, Feindt writes that adopting AI can help grocery chains stock their stores more efficiently in an effort to reduce waste and ensure customers get what they want, as well as price their products according to real-time data on deals and promotions offered by other stores.

Feindt writes that stock and pricing in brick and mortar stores — two traditionally human-led domains — need to start using the data they have, and use AI to help process that data.

Paul Clarke, the CTO at Ocado (the company behind the grocery robots shown earlier) told The Telegraph that AI is “critical” to the industry, and where it’s heading.

“From our point of view artificial intelligence is the one to rule them all when it comes to the set of disruptive technologies that power our business and we already make extensive use of machine learning across our platform,” said Clarke. “But really we just think we’re getting started.”

It’s also easier than ever before for grocery chains to go beyond self-service checkouts and start using AI to optimize business, below is an infographic detailing 65 tech startups that use artificial intelligence, virtual reality… etc to usher grocery store operations into the future. This list is packed, but it’s not exhaustive.

From using AI to combat food contamination to giving allergy-sufferers peace of mind when shopping to programming shopping carts to follow consumers around the store, there are endless ways that AI can enhance grocery operations and produce tangible results.

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Culture

Mozilla announces grants for projects on how AI affects society

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Mozilla recently announced the creation of seven new five-figure grants for “technologists and media makers who help the public understand how threats to a healthy internet affect their everyday lives.”

Under their “Creative Media” awards track, Mozilla is offering a total of $250,000 in awards comprised of two $50,000 awards ($47,500 award + $2,500 MozFest travel stipend) and five $25,000 total prize packages ($22,500 award + $2,500 MozFest travel stipend). Mozilla says they’re specifically looking for projects that focus on AI and machine learning.

Mozilla wants these grants to go to researchers who can help the public to better understand how threats to a “healthy internet” are impacting their lives. These projects can be presented in a variety of mediums such as videos, games, browser extensions and data visualizations.

To be eligible for this award, projects must already be in-progress, at either the conceptual or prototype stage. They also have to be “freely available on the web,” have the ability “to be broadly shared,” and must include “privacy-respecting mechanisms.”

This isn’t Mozilla’s only project that has the aims of teaching people more about the changing face of technology.

From briefs to explainers to graphics, Mozilla has been attempting to make it easier for people to understand how things work.

Applications for this grant are open now and close on August 1.

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