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Microsoft feared falling behind Google's AI advances, internal emails reveal

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New evidence released as part of the ongoing antitrust case against Google shows that Microsoft was deeply concerned about falling behind its rivals in artificial intelligence (AI) just a few years ago.

In 2019, Microsoft's chief technology officer (CTO) Kevin Scott warned CEO Satya Nadella and founder Bill Gates in an internal email. He wrote that Google's AI was getting "scarily good", through features such as auto-complete in Gmail. Scott noted that Microsoft was "multiple years behind" rivals like Google in the scale of machine learning.

The email discussion, which was made public this week, centered on Microsoft's plan to invest $1 billion in OpenAI to partner on the development of advanced AI. CTO Scott said the scale of Google Brain, DeepMind and OpenAI's ambitions in areas such as reinforcement learning, natural language processing and computer vision models such as BERT were worrying.

We are already seeing the results of that work in our competitive analysis of their products. One of the Q&A competitive metrics that we watch just jumped by 10 percentage points on Google Search because of BERT-like models. Their auto-complete in Gmail, which is especially useful in the mobile app, is getting scarily good.

Scott also acknowledged that Microsoft had talented AI teams working on search, vision and speech, but that they faced constraints in expanding their work. He admitted he had been "very dismissive" of competitive stunts by other companies' AI labs, but realized that was a mistake.

We have very smart ML people in Bind, in the vision team, and in the speech team. But the core deep learning teams within each of these bigger teams are very small, and their ambitions have also been constrained, which means that even as we start to feed them resources, they still have to go through a learning process to scale up. And we are multiple years behind the competition in terms of ML scale.

Nadella seemed convinced of the need to act, responding to the email by emphasising "why I want us to do this". The previously confidential emails provide new context around Microsoft's 2019 deal with OpenAI, which has since borne fruit with products integrating the company's technology.

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