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Microsoft is teaching drones, robots and drills how to think like humans via software

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Microsoft last year acquired a company called Bonsai that makes this kind of software, merged it with some work from its research arm — a group of Microsoft researchers wrote a paper on this idea back in 2017 — and is now expanding a software preview so more potential customers can test it.

Microsoft and technology rivals spend a lot of time talking about machine learning. Now Microsoft is talking about something called machine teaching.

No the software maker doesn’t plan to send robots into classrooms.

In a world where factories and wind farms will increasingly run on autonomous systems, drones will criss-cross cities delivering packages and robots will operate in underground mines, Microsoft wants to make the software that helps mechanical and chemical engineers teach those devices how to behave, where to go and how to maintain safe conditions.

Microsoft last year acquired a company called Bonsai that makes this kind of software, merged it with some work from its research arm — a group of Microsoft researchers wrote a paper on this idea back in 2017 — and is now expanding a software preview so more potential customers can test it. As the company tries to sell more of its Azure cloud software to industrial companies, it aims to make these kinds of autonomous programs a profitable part of that portfolio. Many consumers will be most familiar with this kind of software as it exists in self-driving cars, but Microsoft plans to leave that part of the market to the Teslas of the world.

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Build What’s NextDelta Air Lines is running a project to improve their baggage handling using the technology.

Royal Dutch Shell is trying out the software to control drilling equipment, while Schneider Electric is seeing how it works with electric heating and cooling controls for buildings, said Mark Hammond, founder of Bonsai, who is now a general manager at Microsoft. A Microsoft partner based near that company’s Redmond headquarters wants to use it for tractors and Carnegie Mellon University deployed the software as part of a mine-exploration robot that recently won a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency challenge.

Microsoft has also suggested the software could work well for drones that check power lines and wind turbines and for disaster recovery operations where autonomous devices scout out the situations that may not be safe for human rescuers. “The industry is fixated on autonomous driving and that’s it, but if you look around you in the world, you can find literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of scenarios where automation can improve things,” said Gurdeep Pall, Microsoft vice president, business AI.

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