Microsoft’s research head Harry Shum hints at “very exciting” AI-driven hardware to come

Laurent Giret

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Following Microsoft’s latest reorganization last week, the company’s AI and Research Group became one of the three big engineering groups within the Redmond giant, along with the Experience & Devices division and the Cloud + AI Platform division. In his email to employees, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella emphasized that the AI and Research group, which was originally created in 2016, had become “instrumental in the key technology advances required across all our product teams.”

Harry Shum, leader of Microsoft’s AI and Research Group, will also work closely with a new AI Perception and Mixed Reality team led by HoloLens inventor Alex Kipman, Nadella said last week. Speaking with GeekWire, Harry Shum said that these various synergies should lead to some “very, very exciting devices” coming from Microsoft in the near future.

Shum didn’t share further details about these new devices, but the exec said that everything Microsoft does these days is “all infused by AI.” Moreover, the Shum added that Redmond’s latest reorg will help the company become a true leader in the AI field. “It’s not only about winning awards, or about winning ‘best of’ papers,” Shum said. “It’s also about the connection to many millions of customers.”

Last year, Shum revealed that the next version of HoloLens would feature a dedicated AI coprocessor for implementing deep neural networks. A couple of months later, Panos Panay (who was recently promoted to Chief Product Officer) confirmed that Microsoft was developing its own AI chips for other devices. “We have to continue to find those pieces of silicon, those chipsets that have to be developed to bring sensors to life, to connect people with each other and with their products,” Panay said.

It remains to be seen which future Microsoft products will showcase the company’s AI expertise. So far, we know that Microsoft will soon unveil a new Surface Hub digital whiteboard, and we may also finally see the company’s much-anticipated foldable mobile device later this year. As for HoloLens, we previously heard that a new version may not come until 2019. That still leaves other Surface devices such as the Surface Pro on the table, though Microsoft has been iterating quite slowly recently.

All premium smartphones from Apple, Samsung and Huawei now use AI chips or “neural engines” to improve picture quality, battery management and more. AI has obviously become a differentiator for smartphone makers, but can Microsoft prove its AI chops without a mobile platform of its own? That’s the question the company will have to answer in the coming months.