Microsoft Deepens AI Portfolio with Maluuba Buy

Microsoft on Friday announced its agreement to acquire Maluuba, a Montreal-based startup that Microsoft says has one of the world's most advanced natural language research labs.

Founded in 2011, Maluuba will become part of Microsoft's Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, which launched last fall. The AI research group brings together 5,000 engineers and computer scientists from Microsoft's Bing, Cortana, information platform, and ambient computing and robotics groups.

AI, machine learning and conversational computing have emerged as key priorities for Microsoft. A key pillar of its efforts has been the Windows digital assistant Cortana. But as Maluuba CTO and Co-Founder Kaheer Suleman said last year at a demonstration in New York (video here), today's digital assistants are confined to a limited number of buckets or domains. Any digital assistant -- be it Siri, Cortana or Google Now -- will work well if it is asked a question that it has been designed to take. But ask it any question outside of that scope and it falls flat on its face, Suleman said.

"Maluuba's vision is to advance toward a more general artificial intelligence by creating literate machines that can think, reason and communicate like humans -- a vision exactly in line with ours," said Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft's AI and Research Group, in a blog post announcing the acquisition. "Maluuba's impressive team is addressing some of the fundamental problems in language understanding by modeling some of the innate capabilities of the human brain -- from memory and common sense reasoning to curiosity and decision making. I've been in the AI research and development field for more than 20 years now, and I'm incredibly excited about the scenarios that this acquisition could make possible in conversational AI."

Suleman and Maluuba Co-Founder and CEO Sam Pasupalak met in an AI class at the University of Waterloo and shared a common goal of making AI more intuitive by developing machine learning techniques optimized for natural interactions. 

"Understanding human language is an extremely complex task and, ultimately, the holy grail in the field of AI," the two said on a Maluuba blog post announcing the deal. "Microsoft provides us the opportunity to deliver our work to the billions of consumer and enterprise users that can benefit from the advent of truly intelligent machines."

Yoshua Bengio, described as "one of Deep Learning's founding fathers," was key in supporting Suleman and Pasupalak's efforts at Maluuba as an adviser. Bengio will carry that role into Microsoft as an adviser to Shum while maintaining his role as head of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.

Suleman and Pasupalak pointed to Microsoft's Azure public cloud as optimal for applying the datasets Maluuba has developed because of the GPUs and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that Microsoft used to bolster its global infrastructure. Microsoft detailed these investments in Azure's infrastructure at last fall's Ignite conference.

Maluuba's most recent advance came last month when it announced the release of two natural language datasets. The first dataset is called NewsQA, which the company said can train algorithms to answer complex questions that typically require human comprehension and reasoning skills. It uses CNN articles from the DeepMind Q&A Dataset, described as a collection methodology based on "incomplete information and fostered curiosity." The questions in the dataset "require reasoning to answer, such as synthesis, inference and handling ambiguity, unlike other datasets that have focused on larger volumes yet simpler questions. The result is a robust dataset that will further drive natural language research," according to Maluuba.

The other dataset, called Frames, addresses motivation and is based on 19,986 turns designed to train deep-learning algorithms to engage in natural conversations. The model simulates text-based conversations between a customer interacting with a travel agent.

Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed but Maluuba was backed by Samsung Ventures.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.