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Microsoft feared falling behind Google’s AI progress, according to internal emails

New evidence released as part of the ongoing antitrust case against Google shows that Microsoft was deeply concerned a few years ago about falling behind its rivals in artificial intelligence (AI).

In 2019, Microsoft’s chief technology officer (CTO) Kevin Scott warned CEO Satya Nadella and founder Bill Gates in an internal email. He wrote that Google’s AI was becoming “scarily good,” through features like autocomplete in Gmail. Scott noted that Microsoft is “several years behind” rivals like Google in machine learning.

The email discussion, which was made public this week, focused on Microsoft’s plan to invest $1 billion in OpenAI to collaborate on the development of advanced AI. CTO Scott said the scale of Google Brain, DeepMind and OpenAI’s ambitions in areas such as reinforcement learning, natural language processing and computer vision models such as BERT were concerning.

We are already seeing the results of that work in our competitive analysis of their products. One of the Q&A competitive metrics we’re looking at just increased by 10 percentage points on Google Search due to BERT-like modeling. Their autocomplete in Gmail, which is especially useful in the mobile app, is getting scarily good.

Scott also acknowledged that Microsoft had talented AI teams working on search, vision and speech, but they faced limitations in expanding their work. He admitted that he was “very dismissive” of competitive stunts from other companies’ AI labs, but realized this was a mistake.

We have very smart ML people in Bind, on the vision team and on the voice team. But the core deep learning teams within each of these larger teams are very small and their ambitions are also limited, meaning that even if we start giving them resources, they still have to go through a learning process to scale. And in terms of ML scale, we are several years behind the competition.

Nadella seemed convinced of the need to take action and responded to the email by emphasizing “why I want us to do this.” The previously confidential emails provide new context around Microsoft’s 2019 deal with OpenAI, which has since paid off with products that integrate the company’s technology.