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Microsoft built a hardware platform for real-time AI

Project Brainwave promises speedy machine learning in the cloud.

In many cases, you want AI to work with info as it happens. That virtual assistant needs to respond within a few seconds at most, and a smart security camera needs to send an alert while intruders are still within sight. Microsoft knows this very well. It just unveiled its own hardware acceleration platform, Project Brainwave, that promises speedy, real-time AI in the cloud. Thanks to Intel's new Stratix 10 field programmable gate array (FPGA) chip, it can crunch a hefty 39.5 teraflops in machine learning tasks with less than 1 millisecond of latency, and without having to batch tasks together. It can handle complex AI tasks as they're received, in other words.

It's considerably more flexible than many of its hard-coded rivals, too. It relies on a 'soft' dynamic neural network processing engine dropped into off-the-shelf FPGA chips where competitors often need their approach locked in from the outset. It can handle Microsoft's own AI framework (Cognitive Toolkit), but it can also work with Google's TensorFlow and other systems. You can build a machine learning system the way you like and expect it to run in real-time, instead of letting the hardware dictate your methods.

To no one's surprise, Microsoft plans to make Project Brainwave available through its own Azure cloud services (it's been big on advanced tech in Azure as of late) so that companies can make use of live AI. There's no guarantee it will receive wide adoption, but it's evident that Microsoft doesn't want to cede any ground to Google, Facebook and others that are making a big deal of internet-delivered AI. It's betting that companies will gladly flock to Azure if they know they have more control over how their AI runs.