Microsoft's artificial intelligence top boss Harry Shum on acquiring startups: "We'd love another Swiftkey"

Lynsey Barber
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AI is becoming big for Microsoft and other tech companies (Source: Getty)

Microsoft would love to find another Swiftkey, the UK startup it acquired last year for $250m, the tech company's top artificial intelligence leader has said.

"We'd love another Swiftkey acquisition," executive vice president of AI and research Harry Shum told City A.M. saying it was the right company at the right time.

Microsoft is stepping up its AI research, forming a new business unit for the up-and-coming technology last autumn led by Shum.

Read more: How DeepMind's laying foundations for artificial intelligence in the NHS

In addition to Swiftkey, which boasts AI expertise, it has made several acquisitions in the space: Genee, a virtual scheduling assistant based in California and Canadian startup Maluuba which is researching general AI - technology that can effectively think on a par with humans, drawing on what we would term memory and commons sense.

And it's not stopping there. Shum said the tech company, which has its third largest research base in Cambridge, is keeping an eye out for startups in the UK and elsewhere.

"There's never been a more exciting time for AI than now," said Shum. "England has become such an AI innovation hub, not just the with the big tech giants, but the startups and the research."

Rival tech companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Intel are also pursuing M&A in the race to develop AI technology.

More than 200 private companies using AI algorithms have been acquired since 2012, with 30 of those in the first quarter of this year, according to CBInsights. Microsoft has been the joint third biggest acquirer.

Other high profile acquisitions of UK AI startups include Google buying DeepMind, Twitter buying Magic Pony and Apple buying Vocal IQ.

Read more: Men are much more likely to use a robot doctor than women

But Microsoft has also partnered with several of these rivals to form an industry group, Partnership on AI, to ensure the technology is being applied for good, tackling ethical issues and public understanding of it.

The work of Google's DeepMind and the NHS hit the headlines over the way it shared private patient data, which the information watchdog later ruled was illegal.

Asked if the trouble with the deal could be a setback for public perception of AI, Microsoft's most senior researcher in the UK, Chris Bishop, who sees healthcare as the biggest potential application for the technology, told City A.M. "a few bumps in the road were to be expected" in its development.

Microsoft today launched a new AI-powered app, Seeing AI, which narrates the world for the visually impaired simply by pointing a smartphone camera at items and people. It can read documents out, and even recognises people's age and emotions.

Watch how it works below.

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