The Whole World is Now a Computer, Says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Thanks to cloud computing, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, we should start to think of the planet as one giant computer, according to Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella. From a report: "Digital technology, pervasively, is getting embedded in every place: every thing, every person, every walk of life is being fundamentally shaped by digital technology -- it is happening in our homes, our work, our places of entertainment," said Nadella speaking in London. "It's amazing to think of a world as a computer. I think that's the right metaphor for us as we go forward." [...] AI is core to Microsoft's strategy, Nadella said: "AI is the run time which is going to shape all of what we do going forward in terms of applications as well as the platform." Microsoft is rethinking its core products by using AI to connect them together, he said, giving an example of a meeting using translation, transcription, Microsoft's HoloLens and other devices to improve decision-making. "The idea that you can now use all of the computing power that is around you -- this notion of the world as a computer -- completely changes how you conduct a meeting and fundamentally what presence means for a meeting," he said.

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Microsoft To Block Flash In Office 365 Starting January 2019

An anonymous reader writes: Microsoft plans to soon block Flash, Shockwave, and Silverlight content from activating in Office 365, it said. The block, however, will only be applicable in Office 365 subscription clients -- and not in Office 2016, Office 2013, or Office 2010 distributions, the company added. The change is set to come into effect starting January 2019. This is a full-on block, and not just Microsoft disabling problematic controls with the option to click on a button and view its content, BleepingComputer reports. The block means that Office 365 will prevent Flash, Shockwave, or Silverlight content from playing inside Office documents altogether. Microsoft cited various reasons for taking this decision. It said that malware authors have abused this mechanism for exploit campaigns, but also that Office users rarely used these features. In addition, Microsoft said it was also taking this decision after Adobe announced Flash's end-of-life for 2020.

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Microsoft acquires conversational AI startup Semantic Machines to help bots sound more lifelike

Microsoft announced today that it has acquired Semantic Machines, a Berkeley-based startup that wants to solve one of the biggest challenges in conversational AI: making chatbots sound more human and less like, well, bots.

In a blog post, Microsoft AI & Research chief technology officer David Ku wrote that “with the acquisition of Semantic Machines, we will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley to push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces.”

According to Crunchbase, Semantic Machines was founded in 2014 and raised about $20.9 million in funding from investors including General Catalyst and Bain Capital Ventures.

In a 2016 profile, co-founder and chief scientist Dan Klein told TechCrunch that “today’s dialog technology is mostly orthogonal. You want a conversational system to be contextual so when you interpret a sentence things don’t stand in isolation.” By focusing on memory, Semantic Machines’ AI can produce conversations that not only answer or predict questions more accurately, but also flow naturally.

Instead of building its own consumer products, Semantic Machines focused on enterprise customers. This means it will fit in well with Microsoft’s conversational AI-based products, including Microsoft Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Service, which are used by one million and 300,000 developers, respectively, and virtual assistants Cortana and Xiaolce.

Bill Gates Shares His Memories of Donald Trump

MSNBC recently published a video of Bill Gates telling his staff at the Gates Foundation that he had two meetings with Donald Trump since the president was elected. In the video, Gates says Trump doesn't know the difference between two sexually transmitted diseases -- human papillomavirus (HPV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) -- and that it was "scary" how much Trump knew about Gates' daughter's appearance. Gates also said he urged Trump to support innovation and technology during those meetings. CNN reports: Taking audience questions about his interactions with Trump at a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation meeting, the former Microsoft honcho said he first met Trump in December 2016. He told the audience that Trump had previously come across his daughter, Jennifer, at a horse show in Florida. "And then about 20 minutes later he flew in on a helicopter to the same place," Gates said, according to video of the event broadcast by MSNBC late Thursday. "So clearly he had been driven away but he wanted to make a grand entrance in a helicopter. "Anyway, so when I first talked to him, it was actually kind of scary how much he knew about my daughter's appearance. Melinda (Gates' wife) didn't like that too well." Gates also said he discussed science with Trump on two separate occasions, where he says the President questioned him on the difference between HIV and HPV. "In both of those two meetings, he asked me if vaccines weren't a bad thing because he was considering a commission to look into ill-effects of vaccines and somebody -- I think it was Robert Kennedy Jr. -- was advising him that vaccines were causing bad things. And I said no, that's a dead end, that would be a bad thing, don't do that. "Both times he wanted to know if there was a difference between HIV and HPV so I was able to explain that those are rarely confused with each other," Gates said.

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Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller is an inspiring example of inclusive design

Every gamer with a disability faces a unique challenge for many reasons, one of which is the relative dearth of accessibility-focused peripherals for consoles. Microsoft is taking a big step toward fixing this with its Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device created to address the needs of gamers for whom ordinary gamepads aren’t an option.

The XAC, revealed officially at a recent event but also leaked a few days ago, is essentially a pair of gigantic programmable buttons and an oversized directional pad; 3.5mm ports on the back let a huge variety of assistive devices like blow tubes, pedals and Microsoft-made accessories plug in.

It’s not meant to be an all-in-one solution by any means, more like a hub that allows gamers with disabilities to easily make and adjust their own setups with a minimum of hassle. Whatever you’re capable of, whatever’s comfortable, whatever gear you already have, the XAC is meant to enable it.

I’d go into detail, but it would be impossible to do better than Microsoft’s extremely interesting and in-depth post introducing the XAC, which goes into the origins of the hardware, the personal stories of the testers and creators and much more. Absolutely worth taking the time to read.

I look forward to hearing more about the system and how its users put it to use, and I’m glad to see inclusivity and accessibility being pursued in such a practical and carefully researched manner.

New XBox and Windows game controller for people with disabilities

Microsoft's new accessible game controller has a retro vibe, enormous buttons, and a range of attachments tailored to specific disabilities.
The new Xbox Adaptive Controller, which will be available later this year, can be connected to external buttons, switches, joysticks and mounts, giving gamers with a wide range of physical disabilities the ability to customize their setups. The most flexible adaptive controller made by a major gaming company, the device can be used to play Xbox One and Windows 10 PC games and supports Xbox Wireless Controller features such as button remapping.
Reminds me of the original arcade Street Fighter "punchable" buttons (see the photo from Ars Technica, below). There's a certain irony here, because (in their primitive 80s form) they were unreliable and made the game too difficult, leading arcade operators to replace them with normal buttons. Because the punch-plates were pressure sensitive, though, the game required six normal buttons to play properly, kicking off the myriads-of-buttons era in which games became markedly less accessible.

A $400 Microsoft Surface may be on the way

Microsoft’s always taken a premium approach to its Surface line, showing users what its operating system can do when run on top of the line hardware. It’s a model that makes sense for a company with so many ties to third-party hardware manufacturers. But the line that’s been so focused on the high-end needs of “creative professionals” may be getting a budget addition in the near future.

According to a new report from Bloomberg, Microsoft is eyeing the end of the year to release a $400 version of the Surface designed to compete more directly with Apple’s ubiquitous tablet. Of course, many have tried and largely failed to take on the iPad — including Microsoft itself.

The company launched the Surface RT half a decade ago, without making much of a splash. These days, the tablet herd has thinned a bit, and Microsoft has established itself as a maker of premium first-party hardware.

The new device is said to sport a 10-inch screen, putting it in direct competition with Apple’s lower-priced iPad. At $400, Microsoft’s entry would run $70 more than the budget iPad’s starting price, but would still run considerably less than the $799 Surface Pro. And this being Microsoft, there are expected to be multiple SKUs. The devices reportedly won’t ship with a keyboard cover — one of the Surface’s biggest selling points — though they’ll all sport a kickstand and feature a USB C port for charging.

Microsoft, naturally, won’t respond to queries about the device, which is reportedly set for a release in the second half of this year. Given the company’s recent push with Windows 10S, the product could certainly make sense as part of the company’s push into low priced devices for the education market.

Microsoft To Launch a Line of Lower-Cost Surface Tablets With 10-inch Displays By Second Half of 2018, Report Says

Microsoft plans to launch a line of lower-cost Surface tablets as soon as the second half of 2018, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. These devices should help Microsoft improve its market share in the iPad-led hybrid machines market, the outlet noted. From the report: Microsoft has tried this before. The software giant kicked off its consumer-oriented hardware push in 2012 with the launch of the original Surface RT. At the time, it was priced starting at $499. After the tablets didn't resonate with consumers and product reviewers, Microsoft pivoted to the more-expensive Surface Pro, a line which has gained steam and likely contributed to demand for a pro-oriented iPad, which Apple launched in 2015. The new tablets will feature 10-inch screens -- around the same size as a standard iPad, but smaller than the 12-inch screens used on the Surface Pro laptop line. The new Surfaces, priced about $400, will have rounded edges like an iPad, differing from the squared off corners of current models. They'll also include USB-C connectivity, a first for Surface tablets, a new charging and syncing standard being used by some of the latest smartphones. The tablets are expected to be about 20 percent lighter than the high-end models, but will have around four hours fewer of battery life. (The current Surface Pro can last 13.5 hours on a single charge.)

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Surface Hub 2 Coming in 2019, Looks Amazing

Microsoft gave an early look at its next-generation Surface Hub 2 today. It will go on sale next year, with certain selected customers testing it this year. From a report: Microsoft's Surface Hub, its conference room computer, was something of a surprise hit. The system has been in short supply since its launch about three years ago, especially in its 84-inch version: its combination of video conferencing and whiteboarding makes it a collaborative tool with few direct competitors. The central feature of the new system is that it's a 50.5-inch 4K display with a rotating mount. Instead of the traditional 16:9 aspect ratio, the Surface Hub 2 has the same 3:2 ratio of Microsoft's other Surface systems.

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Music payments startup Exactuals debuts r.ai, a “Palantir for music royalties”

Exactuals, a software service offering payments management for the music industry, is debuting r.ai, a new tool that it’s dubbed the “Palantir for music”. It’s a service that can track songwriting information and rights across different platforms to ensure attribution for music distributors.

As companies like Apple and Spotify demand better information from labels about the songs they’re pushing to streaming services, companies are scrambling to clean up their data and provide proper attribution.

According to Exactuals, that’s where the r.ai service comes in.

The company is tracking 59 million songs for their “Interested Party Identifiers” (IPIs), International Standard Work Codes (ISWCs), and International Standard Recording Codes (ISRCs) — all of which are vital to ensuring that songwriters and musicians are properly paid for their work every time a song is streamed, downloaded, covered, or viewed on a distribution platform.

Chris McMurtry, the head of music product at Exactuals explained it like this. In the music business, songwriters have the equivalent of a social security number which is attached to any song they write so they can receive credit and payment. That’s the ISI. Performers of songs have their own identifier, which is the ISWC. Then the song itself gets its own code, called the ISRC which is used to track a song as it’s performed by other artists through various covers, samples and remixes.

“There’s only one ISWC, but there might be 300 ISRCs,” says Exactuals chief executive, Mike Hurst.

Publishing technology companies will pay writers and performers based on these identifiers, but they’re struggling to identify and track all of the 700,000 disparate places where the data could be, says McMurtry. Hence the need for r.ai.

 

The technology is “an open api based on machine learning that matches disparate data sources to clean and enhance it so rights holders can get paid and attribution happens,” says McMurtry.

For publishers, Exactuals argues that r.ai is the best way to track rights across a huge catalog of music and for labels it’s an easy way to provide services like Apple and Spotify with the information they’re now demanding, Hurst said.