Microsoft has announced that it is acquiring Bonsai – an AI startup focused on reinforcement learning – to expand its AI offerings. This move helps Microsoft in expanding its portfolio to autonomous systems and industrial control systems.
Bonsai, an artificial intelligence startup based in Berkeley, California, aims to democratize AI by making the technology accessible to business decision makers. It is abstracting the complexity involved in implementing reinforcement learning.
Mark Hammond, the co-founder, and CEO of Bonsai is not new to Microsoft. He had a short stint at Microsoft working as a developer evangelist and a consultant for Microsoft Research. For the last five years, Mark and his team focused their efforts on simplifying AI for businesses.
Bonsai redefines the workflow of implementing AI models through Basic Recurrent Artificial Intelligence Network (BRAIN), architect, learner, and predictor. The architect defines the high-level mental model of the system which will eventually translate to the right algorithm. The instructor ensures that the system learns from existing data sources or simulated datasets. It creates an execution plan to make sure that the outcome defined by the architect can be achieved with higher accuracy. The learner component is responsible for carrying out the actual execution of the low level, underlying artificial intelligence algorithms. It takes the inputs from the instructor to define the parameters of the learning algorithm and evaluating the performance. Finally, the predictor is deployed in production to deal with live data points.
In September 2017, Bonsai established a new reinforcement learning benchmark for programming industrial control systems. Using a robotics task to demonstrate the achievement, the platform successfully trained a simulated robotic arm to grasp and stack blocks on top of one another by breaking down the task into simpler sub-concepts. Their novel technique performed 45 times faster than a comparable approach from Google’s DeepMind. This feat demonstrated the flexibility and efficiency of the platform for programming intelligent control into a range of robotics, manufacturing, HVAC, and other industrial control systems.
Microsoft is already an investor in Bonsai through its M12 venture capital firm. Bonsai’s 42-member team will now become a part of the AI and Research group at Microsoft.
Bonsai’s acquisition is a significant deal for Microsoft on multiple fronts:
- Microsoft set up its VC arm to nurture and incubate startups that have long-term potential. Bonsai’s acquisition is a win for M12, which increases its credibility in the startup ecosystem.
- Microsoft is looking at AI as a key differentiator for Azure. From Azure ML Studio to CNTK, the company has invested heavily in making ML and AI accessible to developers and businesses. With Bonsai, Microsoft got a credible reinforcement learning AI platform, which fills a critical gap in its current portfolio.
- By combining Bonsai with Azure IoT, Microsoft can build robust autonomous industrial systems for a variety of verticals such as manufacturing, healthcare and automobile.
- Bonsai aligns well with Microsoft’s vision of Intelligent Cloud and Intelligent Edge. The models based on reinforcement learning can run at the edge bringing intelligence to devices.
- With Bonsai acquisition, Microsoft got a leg up over the competition. It has better ammunition to compete with Google, which is investing aggressively in AI.
- Finally, Bonsai completes Microsoft’s AI platform offerings through its focus on autonomous systems. From entry level ML platform to advanced AI platform of industrial systems, Microsoft now has the most comprehensive AI portfolio.
Bonsai is Microsoft’s most strategic acquisition in the AI segment. If executed well, this move will turn Azure into an AI powerhouse.