Google, Microsoft, and Amazon drool over Chinese AI market while Apple woos Trump

The US and Chinese governments have spent the last year setting the table for a trade war, but don’t tell big tech.

Apple’s looking pretty smug now that President Trump’s agreed to relax some of the impending tariffs on Chinese goods – specifically those that would have made it more expensive to manufacture items like the Apple Watch.

This is certainly a feather in the cap of CEO Tim Cook after he dined with the President and First Lady last month. It appears that Cook is employing the “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” strategy to best protect the interests of Apple’s board. Trump uses a similar strategy with polarizing political leaders such as Vladmir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Rodrigo Duterte.

Meanwhile, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon showed off their AI products this week at the Chinese state-sponsored World Artificial Intelligence Conference, in Shanghai, hoping to woo the Chinese government into opening up its glorious data coffers.

China’s state-sponsored AI program is well on track to gathering the largest shared datasets on the planet. Having access to these amazing pools of data would instantly buff any AI company’s ability to train neural networks. But, it’s probably not just the Chinese data pool that beckons some of the richest companies on the planet.

Data may be the lifeblood of artificial intelligence, but capitalism is powered by cold hard cash. China represents one of the largest market segments on the planet. That’s why, on Monday, Microsoft and Amazon both announced plans to build AI offices in Shanghai.

Google, for its part, is still stinging from internal conflict and media scrutiny over its bungled attempt to keep the development of a censorship engine for the Chinese government secret.

In our analysis, it looks like Apple’s strategy is to ride out Trump’s mercurial approach to international trade while the rest of big tech pretends the Chinese government doesn’t use AI to engage in what some experts consider to be egregious civil rights violations.

If you’re not concerned about the Chinese government making sweetheart deals with US AI companies, or how Apple became the first company worth a trillion dollars by exploiting US tax law and politics, then now’s probably a good time to pad your portfolio with big tech stocks.

Disclaimer: You probably shouldn’t take financial advice from a technology journalist.

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Microsoft launches new AI applications for customer service and sales

Like virtually every other major tech company, Microsoft is currently on a mission to bring machine learning to all of its applications. It’s no surprise then that it’s also bringing ‘AI’ to its highly profitable Dynamics 365 CRM products. A year ago, the company introduced its first Dynamics 365 AI solutions and today it’s expanding this portfolio with the launch of three new products: Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, Customer Service and Market Insights.

“Many people, when they talk about CRM, or ERP of old, they referred to them as systems of oppression, they captured data,” said Alysa Taylor, Microsoft corporate VP for business applications and industry. “But they didn’t provide any value back to the end user — and what that end user really needs is a system of empowerment, not oppression.”

It’s no secret that few people love their CRM systems (except for maybe a handful of Dreamforce attendees), but ‘system of oppression’ is far from the ideal choice of words here. Yet Taylor is right that early systems often kept data siloed. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft argues that Dynamics 365 does not do that, allowing it to now use all of this data to build machine learning-driven experiences for specific tasks.

Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, unsurprisingly, is meant to help sales teams get deeper insights into their prospects using sentiment analysis. That’s obviously among the most basic of machine learning applications these days, but AI for Sales also helps these salespeople understand what actions they should take next and which prospects to prioritize. It’ll also help managers coach their individual sellers on the actions they should take.

Similarly, the Customer Service app focuses on using natural language understanding to understand and predict customer service problems and leverage virtual agents to lower costs. Taylor used this part of the announcement to throw some shade at Microsoft’s competitor Salesforce. “Many, many vendors offer this, but they offer it in a way that is very cumbersome for organizations to adopt,” she said. “Again, it requires a large services engagement, Salesforce partners with IBM Watson to be able to deliver on this. We are now out of the box.”

Finally, Dynamics 365 AI for Market Insights does just what the name implies: it provides teams with data about social sentiment, but this, too, goes a bit deeper. “This allows organizations to harness the vast amounts of social sentiment, be able to analyze it, and then take action on how to use these insights to increase brand loyalty, as well as understand what newsworthy events will help provide different brand affinities across an organization,” Taylor said. So the next time you see a company try to gin up some news, maybe it did so based on recommendations from Office 365 AI for Market Insights.

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Answering its critics, Google loosens reins on AMP project

Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, has been a controversial project since its debut. The need for the framework has been clear: the payloads of mobile pages can be just insane, what with layers and layers of images, Javascript, ad networks, and more slowing down page rendering time and costing users serious bandwidth on metered plans.

Yet, the framework has been aggressively foisted on the community by Google, which has backed the project not just with technical talent, but also by making algorithmic changes to its search results that have essentially mandated that pages comply with the AMP project’s terms — or else lose their ranking on mobile searches.

Even more controversially, as part of making pages faster, the AMP project uses caches of pages on CDNs — which are hosted by Google (and also Cloudflare now). That meant that Google’s search results would direct a user to an AMP page hosted by Google, effectively cutting out the owner of the content in the process.

The project has been led by Malte Ubl, a senior staff engineer working on Google’s Javascript infrastructure projects, who has until now held effective unilateral control over the project.

In the wake of all of this criticism, the AMP project announced today that it would reform its governance, replacing Ubl as the exclusive tech lead with a technical steering committee comprised of companies invested in the success in the project. Notably, the project’s intention has an “…end goal of not having any company sit on more than a third of the seats.” In addition, the project will create an advisory board and working groups to shepherd the project’s work.

The project is also expected to move to a foundation in the future. These days, there are a number of places such a project could potentially reside, including the Apache Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

While the project has clearly had its detractors, the performance improvements that AMP has been fighting for are certainly meritorious. With this more open governance model, the project may get deeper support from other browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft, as well as the broader open source community.

And while Google has certainly been the major force behind the project, it has also been popular among open source software developers. Since the project’s launch, there have been 710 contributors to the project according to its statistics, and the project (attempting to empathize its non-Google monopoly) notes that more than three quarters of those contributors don’t work at Google.

Nonetheless, more transparency and community involvement should help to accelerate Accelerated Mobile Pages. The project will host its contributor summit next week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, where these governance changes as well as the technical and design roadmaps for the project will be top of mind for attendees.

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Ultimate.ai nabs $1.3M for a customer service AI focused on non-English markets

For customer service, Ultimate.ai‘s thesis is it’s not humans or AI but humans and AI. The Helsinki- and Berlin-based startup has built an AI-powered suggestion engine that, once trained on clients’ data-sets, is able to provide real-time help to (human) staff dealing with customer queries via chat, email and social channels. So the AI layer is intended to make the humans behind the screens smarter and faster at responding to customer needs — as well as freeing them up from handling basic queries to focus on more complex issues.

AI-fuelled chatbots have fast become a very crowded market, with hundreds of so called ‘conversational AI’ startups all vying to serve the customer service cause.

Ultimate.ai stands out by merit of having focused on non-English language markets, says co-founder and CEO Reetu Kainulainen. This is a consequence of the business being founded in Finland, whose language belongs to a cluster of Eastern and Northern Eurasian languages that are plenty removed from English in sound and grammatical character.

“[We] started with one of the toughest languages in the world,” he tells TechCrunch. “With no available NLP [natural language processing] able to tackle Finnish, we had to build everything in house. To solve the problem, we leveraged state-of-the-art deep neural network technologies.

“Today, our proprietary deep learning algorithms enable us to learn the structure of any language by training on our clients’ customer service data. Core within this is our use of transfer learning, which we use to transfer knowledge between languages and customers, to provide a high-accuracy NLU engine. We grow more accurate the more clients we have and the more agents use our platform.”

Ultimate.ai was founded in November 2016 and launched its first product in summer 2017. It now has more than 25 enterprise clients, including the likes of Zalando, Telia and Finnair. It also touts partnerships with tech giants including SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — integrating with their Contact Center solutions.

“We partner with these players both technically (on client deployments) and commercially (via co-selling). We also list our solution on their Marketplaces,” he notes.

Up to taking in its first seed round now it had raised an angel round of €230k in March 2017, as well as relying on revenue generated by the product as soon as it launched.

The $1.3M seed round is co-led by Holtzbrinck Ventures and Maki.vc.

Kainulainen says one of the “key strengths” of Ultimate.ai’s approach to AI for text-based customer service touch-points is rapid set-up when it comes to ingesting a client’s historical customer logs to train the suggestion system.

“Our proprietary clustering algorithms automatically cluster our customer’s historical data (chat, email, knowledge base) to train our neural network. We can go from millions of lines of unstructured data into a trained deep neural network within a day,” he says.

“Alongside this, our state-of-the-art transfer learning algorithms can seed the AI with very limited data — we have deployed Contact Center automation for enterprise clients with as little as 500 lines of historical conversation.”

Ultimate.ai’s proprietary NLP achieves “state-of-the-art accuracy at 98.6%”, he claims.

It can also make use of what he dubs “semi-supervised learning” to further boost accuracy over time as agents use the tool.

“Finally, we leverage transfer learning to apply a single algorithmic model across all clients, scaling our learnings from client-to-client and constantly improving our solution,” he adds.

On the competitive front, it’s going up against the likes of IBM’s Watson AI. However Kainulainen argues that IBM’s manual tools — which he argues “require large onboarding projects and are limited in languages with no self-learning capabilities” — make that sort of manual approach to chatbot building “unsustainable in the long-term”.

He also contends that many rivals are saddled with “lengthy set-up and heavy maintenance requirements” which makes them “extortionately expensive”.

A closer competitor (in terms of approach) which he namechecks is TC Disrupt battlefield alum Digital Genius. But again they’ve got English language origins — so he flags that as a differentiating factor vs the proprietary NLP at the core of Ultimate.ai’s product (which he claims can handle any language).

“It is very difficult to scale out of English to other languages,” he argues. “It also uneconomical to rebuild your architecture to serve multi-language scenarios. Out of necessity, we have been language-agnostic since day one.”

“Our technology and team is tailored to the customer service problem; generic conversational AI tools cannot compete,” he adds. “Within this, we are a full package for enterprises. We provide a complete AI platform, from automation to augmentation, as well as omnichannel capabilities across Chat, Email and Social. Languages are also a key technical strength, enabling our clients to serve their customers wherever they may be.”

The multi-language architecture is not the only claimed differentiator, either.

Kainulainen points to the team’s mission as another key factor on that front, saying: “We want to transform how people work in customer service. It’s not about building a simple FAQ bot, it’s about deeply understanding how the division and the people work and building tools to empower them. For us, it’s not Superagent vs. Botman, it’s Superagent + Botman.”

So it’s not trying to suggest that AI should replace your entire customers service team but rather enhance your in house humans.

Asked what the AI can’t do well, he says this boils down to interactions that are transactional vs relational — with the former category meshing well with automation, but the latter (aka interactions that require emotional engagement and/or complex thought) definitely not something to attempt to automate away.

“Transactional cases are mechanical and AI is good at mechanical. The customer knows what they want (a specific query or action) and so can frame their request clearly. It’s a simple, in-and-out case. Full automation can be powerful here,” he says. “Relational cases are more frequent, more human and more complex. They can require empathy, persuasion and complex thought. Sometimes a customer doesn’t know what the problem is — “it’s just not working”.

“Other times are sales opportunities, which businesses definitely don’t want to automate away (AI isn’t great at persuasion). And some specific industries, e.g. emergency services, see the human response as so vital that they refuse automation entirely. In all of these situations, AI which augments people, rather than replaces, is most effective.

“We see work in customer service being transformed over the next decade. As automation of simple requests becomes the status-quo, businesses will increasingly differentiate through the quality of their human-touch. Customer service will become less labour intensive, higher skilled work. We try and imagine what tools will power this workforce of tomorrow and build them, today.”

On the ethics front, he says customers are always told when they are transferred to a human agent — though that agent will still be receiving AI support (i.e. in the form of suggested replies to help “bolster their speed and quality”) behind the scenes.

Ultimate.ai’s customers define cases they’d prefer an agent to handle — for instance where there may be a sales opportunity.

“In these cases, the AI may gather some pre-qualifying customer information to speed up the agent handle time. Human agents are also brought in for complex cases where the AI has had difficulty understanding the customer query, based on a set confidence threshold,” he adds.

Kainulainen says the seed funding will be used to enhance the scalability of the product, with investments going into its AI clustering system.

The team will also be targeting underserved language markets to chase scale — “focusing heavily on the Nordics and DACH [Germany, Austria, Switzerland]”.

“We are building out our teams across Berlin and Helsinki. We will be working closely with our partners – SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — to further this vision,” he adds. 

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Jasper Masemann, investment manager at Holtzbrinck Ventures, added: “The customer service industry is a huge market and one of the world’s largest employers. Ultimate.ai addresses the main industry challenges of inefficiency, quality control and high people turnover with latest advancements in deep learning and human machine hybrid models. The results and customer feedback are the best I have seen, which makes me very confident the team can become a forerunner in this space.”

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Rare delays 'Sea of Thieves' DLC at the last minute


Rare/Microsoft

You might want to rethink your plans if you expected to swashbuckle your way through Sea of Thieves“Forsaken Shores” DLC this week. Rare has pushed back the release from September 19th (just over a day away as of this writing) to September 27th. A weekend playtesting session discovered a “complex” memory glitch that led to crashes for many players, and it’s going to take a while to both fix the bug and test it with volunteers in the Pioneer program.

Rare wanted to be sure it could release the “Forsaken Shores” update with “confidence,” according to the team’s Joe Neate.

The free DLC is arguably the biggest yet for Sea of Thieves, adding a new region (The Devil’s Roar), new enemies, a new mission type (Cargo Runs) and even cooking. As such, a smooth release is important. Gamers have complained that Sea of Thieves, as fun as it can be, only has so much you can do. The last thing Rare wants to do is frustrate players right as it’s adding the kind of content that could keep them engaged for a long while.

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Why the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI deal has cloud companies going nuts

By now you’ve probably heard of the Defense Department’s massive winner-take-all $10 billion cloud contract dubbed the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (or JEDI for short).
Star Wars references aside, this contract is huge, even by government standards.The Pentagon would like a single cloud vendor to build out its enterprise cloud, believing rightly or wrongly that this is the best approach to maintain focus and control of their cloud strategy.

Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson Heather Babb tells TechCrunch the department sees a lot of upside by going this route. “Single award is advantageous because, among other things, it improves security, improves data accessibility and simplifies the Department’s ability to adopt and use cloud services,” she said.

Whatever company they choose to fill this contract, this is about modernizing their computing infrastructure and their combat forces for a world of IoT, artificial intelligence and big data analysis, while consolidating some of their older infrastructure. “The DOD Cloud Initiative is part of a much larger effort to modernize the Department’s information technology enterprise. The foundation of this effort is rationalizing the number of networks, data centers and clouds that currently exist in the Department,” Babb said.

Setting the stage

It’s possible that whoever wins this DOD contract could have a leg up on other similar projects in the government. After all it’s not easy to pass muster around security and reliability with the military and if one company can prove that they are capable in this regard, they could be set up well beyond this one deal.

As Babb explains it though, it’s really about figuring out the cloud long-term. “JEDI Cloud is a pathfinder effort to help DOD learn how to put in place an enterprise cloud solution and a critical first step that enables data-driven decision making and allows DOD to take full advantage of applications and data resources,” she said.

Photo: Mischa Keijser for Getty Images

The single vendor component, however, could explain why the various cloud vendors who are bidding, have lost their minds a bit over it — everyone except Amazon, that is, which has been mostly silent, happy apparently to let the process play out.

The belief amongst the various other players, is that Amazon is in the driver’s seat for this bid, possibly because they delivered a $600 million cloud contract for the government in 2013, standing up a private cloud for the CIA. It was a big deal back in the day on a couple of levels. First of all, it was the first large-scale example of an intelligence agency using a public cloud provider. And of course the amount of money was pretty impressive for the time, not $10 billion impressive, but a nice contract.

For what it’s worth, Babb dismisses such talk, saying that the process is open and no vendor has an advantage. “The JEDI Cloud final RFP reflects the unique and critical needs of DOD, employing the best practices of competitive pricing and security. No vendors have been pre-selected,” she said.

Complaining loudly

As the Pentagon moves toward selecting its primary cloud vendor for the next decade, Oracle in particular has been complaining to anyone who will listen that Amazon has an unfair advantage in the deal, going so far as to file a formal complaint last month, even before bids were in and long before the Pentagon made its choice.

Photo: mrdoomits for Getty Images (cropped)

Somewhat ironically, given their own past business model, Oracle complained among other things that the deal would lock the department into a single platform over the long term. They also questioned whether the bidding process adhered to procurement regulations for this kind of deal, according to a report in the Washington Post. In April, Bloomberg reported that co-CEO Safra Catz complained directly to the president that the deal was tailor made for Amazon.

Microsoft hasn’t been happy about the one-vendor idea either, pointing out that by limiting itself to a single vendor, the Pentagon could be missing out on innovation from the other companies in the back and forth world of the cloud market, especially when we’re talking about a contract that stretches out for so long.

As Microsoft’s Leigh Madden told TechCrunch in April, the company is prepared to compete, but doesn’t necessarily see a single vendor approach as the best way to go. “If the DOD goes with a single award path, we are in it to win, but having said that, it’s counter to what we are seeing across the globe where 80 percent of customers are adopting a multi-cloud solution,” he said at the time.

He has a valid point, but the Pentagon seems hell bent on going forward with the single vendor idea, even though the cloud offers much greater interoperability than proprietary stacks of the 1990s (for which Oracle and Microsoft were prime examples at the time).

Microsoft has its own large DOD contract in place for almost a billion dollars, although this deal from 2016 was for Windows 10 and related hardware for DOD employees, rather than a pure cloud contract like Amazon has with the CIA.

It also recently released Azure Stack for government, a product that lets government customers install a private version of Azure with all the same tools and technologies you find in the public version, and could prove attractive as part of its JEDI bid.

Cloud market dynamics

It’s also possible that the fact that Amazon controls the largest chunk of the cloud infrastructure market, might play here at some level. While Microsoft has been coming fast, it’s still about a third of Amazon in terms of market size, as Synergy Research’s Q42017 data clearly shows.

The market hasn’t shifted dramatically since this data came out. While market share alone wouldn’t be a deciding factor, Amazon came to market first and it is much bigger in terms of market than the next four combined, according to Synergy. That could explain why the other players are lobbying so hard and seeing Amazon as the biggest threat here, because it’s probably the biggest threat in almost every deal where they come up against each other, due to its sheer size.

Consider also that Oracle, which seems to be complaining the loudest, was rather late to the cloud after years of dismissing it. They could see JEDI as a chance to establish a foothold in government that they could use to build out their cloud business in the private sector too.

10 years might not be 10 years

It’s worth pointing out that the actual deal has the complexity and opt-out clauses of a sports contract with just an initial two-year deal guaranteed. A couple of three-year options follow, with a final two-year option closing things out. The idea being, that if this turns out to be a bad idea, the Pentagon has various points where they can back out.

Photo: Henrik Sorensen for Getty Images (cropped)

In spite of the winner-take-all approach of JEDI, Babb indicated that the agency will continue to work with multiple cloud vendors no matter what happens. “DOD has and will continue to operate multiple clouds and the JEDI Cloud will be a key component of the department’s overall cloud strategy. The scale of our missions will require DOD to have multiple clouds from multiple vendors,” she said.

The DOD accepted final bids in August, then extended the deadline for Requests for Proposal to October 9th. Unless the deadline gets extended again, we’re probably going to finally hear who the lucky company is sometime in the coming weeks, and chances are there is going to be lot of whining and continued maneuvering from the losers when that happens.

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'Forza Horizon 4' activates in-game bonuses for Mixer streams

Following a move we’ve seen executed by GTA Online and Facebook, Microsoft is using Forza Horizon 4 in-game bonuses to drive livestreams of the game on both the viewing and broadcasting sides. It gives streamers more reasons to play, and, of course, more opportunities to show it off to potential players.

In the case of FH4, watching players on Microsoft’s Mixer streaming platform (with an account linked to your Xbox gamertag) will add some of the game’s “Influence” points to your account every five minutes, and if you’re a streaming it for others to watch the bonuses come in every two minutes. The game won’t be released until September 28th (Ultimate Edition) or October 2nd (everyone else) on Xbox One and PC, but the credits can be earned now via the demo that dropped this week.

Now that Microsoft owns a livestreaming platform of its own and the popularity of streams affects sales, it’s unlikely this is the last time we’ll see this kind of push. The only question now is whether it will become as annoying and potentially costly as the loot box craze (Forza doesn’t have any) of the last few years?

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Cryptocurrency mining attacks using leaked NSA hacking tools are still highly active a year later

It’s been over a year since highly classified exploits built by the National Security Agency were stolen and published online.

One of the tools, dubbed EternalBlue, can covertly break into almost any Windows machine around the world. It didn’t take long for hackers to start using the exploits to run ransomware on thousands of computers, grinding hospitals and businesses to a halt. Two separate attacks in as many months used WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware, which spread like wildfire. Once a single computer in a network was infected, the malware would also target other devices on the network. The recovery was slow and cost companies hundreds of millions in damages.

Yet, more than a year since Microsoft released patches that slammed the backdoor shut, almost a million computers and networks are still unpatched and vulnerable to attack.

Although WannaCry infections have slowed, hackers are still using the publicly accessible NSA exploits to infect computers to mine cryptocurrency.

Nobody knows that better than one major Fortune 500 multinational, which was hit by a massive WannaMine cryptocurrency mining infection just days ago.

“Our customer is a very large corporation with multiple offices around the world,” said Amit Serper, who heads the security research team at Boston-based Cybereason.

“Once their first machine was hit the malware propagated to more than 1,000 machines in a day,” he said, without naming the company.

Cryptomining attacks have been around for a while. It’s more common for hackers to inject cryptocurrency mining code into vulnerable websites, but the payoffs are low. Some news sites are now installing their own mining code as an alternative to running ads.

But WannaMine works differently, Cybereason said in its post-mortem of the infection. By using those leaked NSA exploits to gain a single foothold into a network, the malware tries to infect any computer within. It’s persistent so the malware can survive a reboot. After it’s implanted, the malware uses the computer’s processor to mine cryptocurrency. On dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of computers, the malware can mine cryptocurrency far faster and more efficiently. Though it’s a drain on energy and computer resources, it can often go unnoticed.

After the malware spreads within the network, it modifies the power management settings to prevent the infected computer from going to sleep. Not only that, the malware tries to detect other cryptomining scripts running on the computer and terminates them — likely to squeeze every bit of energy out of the processor, maximizing its mining effort.

At least 300,000 computers or networks are still vulnerable to the NSA’s EternalBlue hacking tools.

Based on up-to-date statistics from Shodan, a search engine for open ports and databases, at least 919,000 servers are still vulnerable to EternalBlue, with some 300,000 machines in the US alone. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — that figure can represent either individual vulnerable computers or a vulnerable network server capable of infecting hundreds or thousands more machines.

Cybereason said companies are still severely impacted because their systems aren’t protected.

“There’s no reason why these exploits should remain unpatched,” the blog post said. “Organizations need to install security patches and update machines.”

If not ransomware yesterday, it’s cryptomining malware today. Given how versatile the EternalBlue exploit is, tomorrow it could be something far worse — like data theft or destruction.

In other words: if you haven’t patched already, what are you waiting for?

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Best laptop and tablet deals this weekend: Save on Apple iPads, Alienware gaming laptops, Microsoft 2-in-1s, and more

Just to let you know, if you buy something featured here, Mashable might earn an affiliate commission.
Sales, sales, sales.
Sales, sales, sales.
Image: Pexels

The weekend is here, so that means it’s time to kick up your feet and get some much needed relaxation. It also means some great sales to take advantage of, especially if you’re looking for a new tablet or laptop. And thanks to Amazon and Walmart, there’s no shortage of choice.

If you’re looking for a new tablet, there are plenty of iPads on sale this weekend. First, there’s the Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch (32GB, Wi-Fi) on Amazon for $369.99. But if you want to take advantage of your 4G data plan, you can get the Apple iPad Air 2 Wi-Fi + Cellular 16GB from Walmart for $379.99. Android fan? Samsung even has a few offerings this weekend as well, like the SAMSUNG Galaxy Tab S2 9.7-inch at Walmart for $327.99.

There’s no shortage of laptops available, either. Dell has plenty of laptops to choose from, whether you’re looking for an affordable, basic notebook for school or a high-end gaming laptop. For example, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1 is available from Walmart for $268.66 and is perfect for any professional in need of a simple notebook for travel. But if you’re looking to get some raiding done in Destiny 2, the Alienware R4 is more than $200 off at $1329.99.

Tablets on sale

Image: apple

Laptops for $499 and under

Image: dell

$500 to $999

Image: google

$1000 and above

Image: Dell

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Microsoft acquires Lobe, a drag-and-drop AI tool

Microsoft today announced that is has acquired Lobe, a startup that lets you build machine learning models with the help of a simple drag-and-drop interface. Microsoft plans to use Lobe, which only launched into beta earlier this year, to build upon its own efforts to make building AI models easier, though, for the time being, Lobe will operate as before.

“As part of Microsoft, Lobe will be able to leverage world-class AI research, global infrastructure, and decades of experience building developer tools,” the team writes. “We plan to continue developing Lobe as a standalone service, supporting open source standards and multiple platforms.”

Lobe was co-founded by Mike Matas, who previously worked on the iPhone and iPad, as well as Facebook’s Paper and Instant Articles products. The other co-founders are Adam Menges and Markus Beissinger.

In addition to Lobe, Microsoft also recently bought Bonsai.ai, a deep reinforcement learning platform, and Semantic Machines, a conversational AI platform. Last year, it acquired Disrupt Battlefield participant Maluuba. It’s no secret that machine learning talent is hard to come by, so it’s no surprise that all of the major tech firms are acquiring as much talent and technology as they can.

“In many ways though, we’re only just beginning to tap into the full potential AI can provide,” Microsoft’s EVP and CTO Kevin Scott writes in today’s announcement. “This in large part is because AI development and building deep learning models are slow and complex processes even for experienced data scientists and developers. To date, many people have been at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing AI, and we’re committed to changing that.”

It’s worth noting that Lobe’s approach complements Microsoft’s existing Azure ML Studio platform, which also offers a drag-and-drop interface for building machine learning models, though with a more utilitarian design than the slick interface that the Lobe team built. Both Lobe and Azure ML Studio aim to make machine learning easy to use for anybody, without having to know the ins and outs of TensorFlow, Keras or PyTorch. Those approaches always come with some limitations, but just like low-code tools, they do serve a purpose and work well enough for many use cases.

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