Microsoft Acquires AI Startup Founded by Former Employees

Microsoft on Wednesday announced its acquisition of Berkeley, Calif.-based AI startup Bonsai for an undisclosed amount.

Bonsai's flagship AI platform lets subject-matter experts and data analysts who don't have an AI or machine learning background get hands-on experience with building AI models and other tools while basically bypassing the underlying algorithms.

"Using a technique we call Machine Teaching," the company's Web site states, "[the platform] leverage[s] your subject matter expertise to deconstruct complex problems into the key concepts you want an AI model to learn."

The system automatically chooses a training model for the data -- "no laying out neural nets or tuning hyperparameters required" -- and then feeds the results via a "Bonsai Brain," where the data can be used as a simulation and can be further manipulated, trained and debugged. According to Bonsai, these Brains (i.e., your data) can be deployed in the cloud, on the edge or on-premises.

Bonsai was founded in 2014 by two former Microsoft employees: Mark Hammond, who graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in computation and neural systems and worked at Yale's neuroscience department and Numenta, and Keen Browne, who worked in the Microsoft developer division for four years. It was also partially funded by Microsoft Ventures.

In May 2017, Bonsai raised $7.6 million in funding from Microsoft Ventures, ABB, Siemens and Samsung Next.

"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," said Gurdeep Pall, Microsoft corporate vice president of Business AI, in the company's official announcement of the acquisition. "This toolchain will compose with Azure Machine Learning running on the Azure Cloud with GPUs and Brainwave, and models built with it will be deployed and managed in Azure IoT, giving Microsoft an end-to-end solution for building, operating and enhancing 'brains' for autonomous systems."

"To realize [our] vision of making AI more accessible and valuable for all, we have to remove the barriers to development, empowering every developer, regardless of machine learning expertise, to be an AI developer," Pall continued. "Bonsai has made tremendous progress here and Microsoft remains committed to furthering this work."

Bonsai examples can be found here, and its GitHub page is here.

About the Author

Becky Nagel is the vice president of Web & Digital Strategy for 1105's Converge360 Group, where she oversees the front-end Web team and deals with all aspects of digital strategy. She also serves as executive editor of the group's media Web sites, and you'll even find her byline on, the group's newest site for enterprise developers working with AI. She recently gave a talk at a leading technical publishers conference about how changes in Web technology may impact publishers' bottom lines. Follow her on twitter @beckynagel.


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