Insight Bite: Microsoft seals Bonsai deal as it means business on AI leadership

The race for AI capacity is gathering pace, as Microsoft announced its newest acquisition: Bonsai.

Bonsai’s software is based on what’s called reinforcement learning, where systems are trained by experts to improve through trial and error. The resulting AI models can be added to corporate applications for customers in areas such as energy, manufacturing and automotive. Bonsai’s platform is particularly interesting because it lets customer companies’ industry experts train these autonomous systems even without having any AI knowledge. This specific skill is the real appeal of the deal for Microsoft.

“Training autonomous systems that function amidst the many unforeseen situations in the real world is very hard and requires deep expertise in AI – essentially making it unscalable,” Gurdeep Pall, Corporate Vice President of Business AI at Microsoft, wrote in a statement on the merits of the deal. “Bonsai’s platform, combined with rich simulation tools and reinforcement learning work in Microsoft Research, becomes the simplest and richest AI toolchain for building any kind of autonomous system for control and calibration tasks.”

What Microsoft paid for the Bay Area startup from 2014 was not announced, but Bonsai has received $13.6 million in funding to date, according to Crunchbase. Bonsai already has strong ties to Microsoft: its founders are former employees, and the company has also enjoyed Microsoft’s support via M12, previously known as Microsoft Ventures, which led a Series A funding round.

Bonsai will work alongside Microsoft’s Azure Machine Learning, and marks the latest out of the tech giant’s many steps towards developing top level AI expertise. Microsoft has already brought onboard Maluuba, Semantic Machines, SwiftKey, and Genee. The recent acquisition of GitHub has also been linked to furthering Microsoft’s agenda in AI; Pall wrote that the deal “further underscores just how imperative it is that we empower developers to break through and lead this next wave of innovation”.

There is no doubt about it: Microsoft is determined to be an AI leader that will steer this exciting new field of technology into the future. As they certainly won’t be the only company with those aspirations, it’s never been a better time to be an innovative AI company.

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