AWS confirms reports it will challenge JEDI contract award to Microsoft

Surely just about everyone was surprised when the Department of Defense named Microsoft as the winner of the decade long, $10 billion JEDI cloud contract last month, none more so than Amazon, the company everyone assumed all along would be the winner. Today the company confirmed earlier reports that it was challenging the contract award in the Court of Federal Claims.

The Federal Times broke this story.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson suggested that there was possible bias and issues in the selection process. “AWS is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts. We also believe it’s critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence.

“Numerous aspects of the JEDI evaluation process contained clear deficiencies, errors, and unmistakable bias — and it’s important that these matters be examined and rectified,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch.

It’s certainly worth noting that the president has not hidden his disdain for Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, who also is owner of the Washington Post newspaper. As I wrote in Even after Microsoft wins, JEDI saga could drag on:

Amazon, for instance, could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused, saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

Oracle also filed a number of protests throughout the process including one with the Government Accountability Office that was later rejected. It also went to court and the case was dismissed. All of the protests claimed that the process favored Amazon. The end result proved it didn’t.

The president interjected himself in the decision process in August, asking the Defense secretary, Mark T. Esper to investigate once again if the procurement process somehow favored Amazon, and the week the contract was awarded, the White House canceled its subscription to the Washington Post.

In October, the decision finally came and the DOD chose Microsoft . Now Amazon is filing a challenge in federal Court, and the JEDI saga really ain’t over until it’s over.

 

Microsoft announces its xCloud streaming service and a truckload of new games are coming in 2020

Microsoft has announced a vague intention to launch its xCloud game streaming service sometime in 2020, and dropped a double handful of new titles that will arrive on it and the existing Game Pass subscription. It seems that next year will indeed be the opening battle in the streaming wars to come.

The announcements came at XO19, the company’s Xbox-focused event, which is taking place in London. They seem calculated to take the wind out of Google’s sails; the opening lineup of Stadia, Google’s entry in the game streaming world, was finalized earlier this week and is rather barebones. Microsoft is hoping Google’s first-mover advantage will be nullified by the expected confusion around payments, features, titles, and other issues Stadia is still working out.

Game Pass is currently in a preview period on PC. Although Microsoft did not supply a hard release date, saying only that 2020 is the plan. That year will also bring Windows 10 support, PC game streaming, and potentially an expansion beyond Android for mobile streaming.

The price too is TBA — Google’s proposition is remarkably complicated, and it will take time for consumers to figure out what they’re willing to pay for, what the real costs are, and so on. So Microsoft is probably going to wait and see here.

But what is known about xCloud is that gamers will get access to all the games currently available on Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription — well over a hundred PC and console titles right now, with more being added regularly. That makes it easier to commit to for a lot of gamers.

New controllers will be supported soon, including Sony’s DualShock 4, which comes with the PlayStation 4; that’s a real olive branch to Microsoft’s arch-rival. And new countries will be brought into the fold soon as well: Canada, India, Japan, and “Western Europe.”

Game Pass will also be receiving dozens of titles old and new throughout 2020, including Final Fantasy 7 through 15, Darksiders 3, Flight Simulator, and a bunch of newly announced games as well, such as Obsidian’s new “Honey, I Shrunk the Survival Game” title, “Grounded.”

Several brand new properties and gameplay for known but unreleased games were also teased at XO19. Check them out below:

Everwild is a new IP from Rare that appears to involve a lot of sneaking around a lush forest and either avoiding or interacting with fantastical animals. It’s still early days, but the team wants to create “new ways to play in a natural and magical world.” I’m just here for the solar-powered dino-deer.

Tell Me Why is a new one from Dontnod, makers of Life is Strange starring a pair of twins with some kind of paranormal connection. Notably one of the twins is transgender, not common among game protagonists, and the company worked with GLAAD to make sure the representation of the character is genuine.

Age of Empires 4 got an only slightly satisfying gameplay reveal. Real-time strategy buffs will want more than this, but no doubt they’re excited to see this venerable franchise getting a modern sequel.

You can catch up on the rest over at the Xbox official blog post.

Salesforce announces it’s moving Marketing Cloud to Microsoft Azure

In the world of enterprise software, there are often strange bedfellows. Just yesterday, Salesforce announced a significant partnership with AWS around the Cloud Information Model. This morning, it announced it was moving its Marketing Cloud to Microsoft Azure. That’s the way that enterprise partnerships shimmy and shake sometimes.

The companies also announced they were partnering around Microsoft Teams, integrating Teams with Salesforce Sales Cloud and Service Cloud.

Salesforce plans to move Marketing Cloud, which has been running in its own data centers, to Microsoft Azure in the coming months, although the exact migration plan timeline is not clear yet. This is a big deal for Microsoft, which competes fiercely with AWS for customers. AWS is the clear market leader in the space, but Microsoft has been a strong second for some time now, and bringing Salesforce on board as a customer is certainly a quality reference for the company.

Brent Leary, founder at CRM Essentials, who has been watching the market for many years, says the partnership says a lot about Microsoft’s approach to business today, and that it’s willing to partner broadly to achieve its goals. “I think the bigger news is that Salesforce chose to go deeper with Microsoft over Amazon, and that Microsoft doesn’t fear strengthening Salesforce at the potential expense of Dynamics 365 (its CRM tool), mainly because their biggest growth driver is Azure,” Leary told TechCrunch.

Microsoft and Salesforce have always had a complex relationship. In the Steve Ballmer era, they traded dueling lawsuits over their CRM products. Later, Satya Nadella kindled a friendship of sorts by appearing at Dreamforce in 2015. The relationship has ebbed and flowed since, but with this announcement, it appears the frenemies are closer to friends than enemies again.

Let’s not forget though, that it was just yesterday that Salesforce announced a partnership with AWS around the Cloud Information Model, one that competes directly with a different partnership between Adobe, Microsoft and SAP; or that just last year AWS announced a significant partnership with AWS around data integration.

These kinds of conflicting deals are confusing, but they show that in today’s connected cloud world, that companies who will compete hard with one another in one part of the market, may still be willing to partner in other parts when it makes sense for both parties and for customers. That appears to be the case with today’s announcement from these companies.

Minecraft Earth is live, so get tapping

Microsoft’s big experiment in real-world augmented reality gaming, Minecraft Earth, is live now for players in North America, the U.K., and a number of other areas. The pocket-size AR game lets you collect blocks and critters wherever you go, undertake little adventures with friends, and of course build sweet castles.

I played an early version of Minecraft Earth earlier this year, and found it entertaining and the AR aspect surprisingly seamless. The gameplay many were first introduced to in Pokemon GO is adapted here in a more creative and collaborative way.

You still walk around your neighborhood, rendered in this case charmingly like a Minecraft world, and tap little icons that pop up around your character. These may be blocks you can use to build, animals you can collect, or events like combat encounters that you can do alone or with friends for rewards.

Ultimately all this is in service of building stuff, which you do on “build plates” of various sizes. These you place in AR mode on a flat surface, which they lock onto, letting you move around freely to edit and play with them. This sounded like it could be fussy or buggy when I first heard about it, but actually doing it was smooth and easy. It’s easy to “zoom in” to edit a structure by just moving your phone closer, and multiple people can play with the same blocks and plate at the same time.

Once you’ve put together something fun, you can take it to an outdoors location and have it represented at essentially “real” size, so you can walk around the interior of your castle or dungeon. Of course you can’t climb steps, since they’re not real, but the other aspects work as expected: you can manipulate doors and other items, breed cave chickens, and generally enjoy yourself.

The game is definitely more open-ended than the collection-focused Pokemon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Whether that proves to be to its benefit or detriment when it comes to appeal and lasting power remains to be seen — but one thing is for sure: People love Minecraft and they’re going to want to at least try this out.

And now they can, if they’re in one of the following countries — with others coming throughout the holiday season.

 

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • South Korea
  • Philippines
  • Sweden
  • Mexico
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Iceland

You can download Minecraft Earth for iOS here and for Android here.

 

The AI stack that’s changing retail personalization

Consumer expectations are higher than ever as a new generation of shoppers look to shop for experiences rather than commodities. They expect instant and highly-tailored (pun intended?) customer service and recommendations across any retail channel.

To be forward-looking, brands and retailers are turning to startups in image recognition and machine learning to know, at a very deep level, what each consumer’s current context and personal preferences are and how they evolve. But while brands and retailers are sitting on enormous amounts of data, only a handful are actually leveraging it to its full potential.

To provide hyper-personalization in real time, a brand needs a deep understanding of its products and customer data. Imagine a case where a shopper is browsing the website for an edgy dress and the brand can recognize the shopper’s context and preference in other features like style, fit, occasion, color etc., then use this information implicitly while fetching similar dresses for the user.

Another situation is where the shopper searches for clothes inspired by their favorite fashion bloggers or Instagram influencers using images in place of text search. This would shorten product discovery time and help the brand build a hyper-personalized experience which the customer then rewards with loyalty.

With the sheer amount of products being sold online, shoppers primarily discover products through category or search-based navigation. However, inconsistencies in product metadata created by vendors or merchandisers lead to poor recall of products and broken search experiences. This is where image recognition and machine learning can deeply analyze enormous data sets and a vast assortment of visual features that exist in a product to automatically extract labels from the product images and improve the accuracy of search results. 

Why is image recognition better than ever before?

retail and artificial intelligence

 

While computer vision has been around for decades, it has recently become more powerful, thanks to the rise of deep neural networks. Traditional vision techniques laid the foundation for learning edges, corners, colors and objects from input images but it required human engineering of the features to be looked at in the images. Also, the traditional algorithms found it difficult to cope up with the changes in illumination, viewpoint, scale, image quality, etc.

Deep learning, on the other hand, takes in massive training data and more computation power and delivers the horsepower to extract features from unstructured data sets and learn without human intervention. Inspired by the biological structure of the human brain, deep learning uses neural networks to analyze patterns and find correlations in unstructured data such as images, audio, video and text. DNNs are at the heart of today’s AI resurgence as they allow more complex problems to be tackled and solved with higher accuracy and less cumbersome fine-tuning.

How much training data do you need?

The AI stack that’s changing retail personalization

Consumer expectations are higher than ever as a new generation of shoppers look to shop for experiences rather than commodities. They expect instant and highly-tailored (pun intended?) customer service and recommendations across any retail channel.

To be forward-looking, brands and retailers are turning to startups in image recognition and machine learning to know, at a very deep level, what each consumer’s current context and personal preferences are and how they evolve. But while brands and retailers are sitting on enormous amounts of data, only a handful are actually leveraging it to its full potential.

To provide hyper-personalization in real time, a brand needs a deep understanding of its products and customer data. Imagine a case where a shopper is browsing the website for an edgy dress and the brand can recognize the shopper’s context and preference in other features like style, fit, occasion, color etc., then use this information implicitly while fetching similar dresses for the user.

Another situation is where the shopper searches for clothes inspired by their favorite fashion bloggers or Instagram influencers using images in place of text search. This would shorten product discovery time and help the brand build a hyper-personalized experience which the customer then rewards with loyalty.

With the sheer amount of products being sold online, shoppers primarily discover products through category or search-based navigation. However, inconsistencies in product metadata created by vendors or merchandisers lead to poor recall of products and broken search experiences. This is where image recognition and machine learning can deeply analyze enormous data sets and a vast assortment of visual features that exist in a product to automatically extract labels from the product images and improve the accuracy of search results. 

Why is image recognition better than ever before?

retail and artificial intelligence

 

While computer vision has been around for decades, it has recently become more powerful, thanks to the rise of deep neural networks. Traditional vision techniques laid the foundation for learning edges, corners, colors and objects from input images but it required human engineering of the features to be looked at in the images. Also, the traditional algorithms found it difficult to cope up with the changes in illumination, viewpoint, scale, image quality, etc.

Deep learning, on the other hand, takes in massive training data and more computation power and delivers the horsepower to extract features from unstructured data sets and learn without human intervention. Inspired by the biological structure of the human brain, deep learning uses neural networks to analyze patterns and find correlations in unstructured data such as images, audio, video and text. DNNs are at the heart of today’s AI resurgence as they allow more complex problems to be tackled and solved with higher accuracy and less cumbersome fine-tuning.

How much training data do you need?

The case against Grace Hopper Celebration

We’ve heard the criticisms that there were fewer black women speakers than white men at Grace Hopper Celebration in the past, but event organizers heard our complaints and created an entire conference pathway and new grants for “women of color from underrepresented groups and women from untapped pathways.”

We feel better now that our panels include hijabi and transgender women. The work done by women of color and others to broaden our understanding of diversity and inclusion in these spaces cannot go without recognition.

But at the end of it all, my question after a long day of panels and handshakes is, why? What are we really doing here? What ideas are we planting and fostering behind our massive paywall? Are we breaking down barriers for future generations, or simply congratulating ourselves for reaching the upper echelons of women who have vaulted them? Are we pushing to change toxic systems, or asking women to change themselves to navigate them?

Who are we benefiting and elevating with our efforts?

What we can say about the majority of corporate women is that we are currently wealthy and educated. What we can say about many corporate women in the American tech sector is that we are white or Asian-American, heterosexual, abled and a plethora of other dimensions of privileged. Through most of our women in tech events, we self-select into a space where others are educated like us, or aspire to be educated like us, and erect barriers to the tune of thousands of dollars and up to a week off from work/school. Conferences tout scholarships to offset the cost of attendance for the up and coming generation of tech women, but often times those students are required to show existing proclivities to STEM.

Extending resources to students who already have exposure to STEM biases our outreach to those with privilege already; low-income schools in California are four times less likely to offer AP computer science A courses than high-income schools, according to an independent study done by the Kapor Center. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a case to allocate resources any other way when these events rely on corporate sponsorship and attendance and a business case must be made for return on investment (re: tech talent pipeline).

The following is a (non-comprehensive) list of recommendations for improving the way we build power as women in tech:

1. Increase economic accessibility by supporting smaller conferences

Attending a conference costs more than its ticket price, so increasing accessibility must be more comprehensive than offering scholarships. Some examples of questions to ask ourselves as organizers: will attendees with mobility needs spend more than others for their travel and lodging? Are students who receive financial aid more fearful about taking days off?

At first glance, these questions seem like they can be addressed by throwing money at the problem — more scholarships for disabled and lower-income attendees, easy! But trying to level the playing field in this manner is an exercise in futility; bringing a few lucky underprivileged people into our space does little to address the underlying hierarchy. A better way to look at it is to ask how we can make the benefits available to those of us with privilege equally accessible to those with less.

Smaller, regional events usually cost less to host and attend and spread value more widely. New speakers can practice leadership, attendees can network with professionals in their local area, and students can receive more attention and mentorship. Resources move into local communities and nonprofits instead of into recruiting pipelines for tech giants. Some examples of regional conferences targeting minorities but with more granular goals are CodeNewbies, AfroTech and Take Back Tech. These are the efforts we need to support if we want to effectively grow power in our communities that don’t already have it.

2. Focus on systemic change

If every takeaway from your event is how women can change their actions, then it might be a shallow event. Women and others are not held down because we cry at work, or because we take maternity leave, but because of how those around us perceive those things. Challenging ourselves to change our perceptions is more difficult but ultimately more valuable than stifling our authentic choices and personality to be more convenient.

It’s important to ask ourselves why we, a group of traditionally mistreated professionals, are gathering. Why are we sharing our stories of vulnerability and to what end are we building our collective strength? Marginalized people coming together helps consolidate our power so that we can change the system we’re in. It’s a form of collective action — when dozens of women want maternity leave, their employer is more inclined to provide it than when one woman asks alone. When multiple women talk to each other and realize they’ve been harassed by the same co-worker, they feel empowered to do something about it. We organize and gather so we can change injustices.

Conversations where the whole room may not agree with you can be more impactful than the ones that earn you the most laughs and nods. Challenge your audience; discomfort is where we grow. If you’re holding an event for allies, make them earn the title of ally. Catch yourself when you fall to the instinct of making everyone feel good when your goal is to make a difference.

3. Support grassroots-led change instead of corporate-lead change

Let’s not forget who the greatest winners are after a Women @ Qualcomm weekend, a Microsoft Women in Technology Event or Grace Hopper Celebration — the event organizer.

They recruit from the highly qualified pool of attendees while cultivating positive PR for valuing diversity, gaining much more overall than any one individual, though a single person may stand to gain from the opportunity. Companies have made a major push for students and employees from underrepresented groups to stay in the “tech talent pipeline.” As from any affirmative action, there are positive outcomes from that, but there are also studies that find that the pipeline has not addressed deeper issues with workplace cultures, power asymmetries, and harassment.

Put another way, companies often recruit diversity in ways that bring value to themselves without taking responsibility for the quality of life of those within the pipeline. It’s important to remind ourselves that these are not purely philanthropic goals for corporations and that recruitment and retention are to their benefit. At the very least, we’re entitled to substantive policy change in exchange for our labor.

Grassroots and community-led change is better than corporate-led change if our goal is to empower and further the opportunities for women. We must create opportunities for leadership and support efforts that truly build our strength. We should be fearless in asking for real change. By all means, do the work within the companies and within the mainstream conferences if that empowers you, but be wary of the ways that you might be keeping power in already powerful communities and keep your goals in sight. Don’t be afraid to ask why, even for things that seem to have the best of intentions. Even well-meaning systems can perpetuate harmful power dynamics if those of us within them aren’t constantly questioning and pushing back.

This Week in Apps: Photoshop for iPad bombs, Google Play’s new rewards program, iOS bug fixes

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support, and the money that flows through it all. What are the developers talking about? What Do app publishers and marketers need to know? How is international politics playing out in the App Store? What apps is everyone using?

As November kicks off, we’re looking at a number of big apps launches from Microsoft and Adobe — as well as what went wrong. We’re also looking at the iOS bug-squashing release, a bunch of data about app install trends around the world, Google Play’s new loyalty program and what it means for developers, the continued scrutiny of Chinese apps by the U.S. government, and more.

Fast Facts

eMarketer remindS us that it recently put out a big report on app installs with a ton of insights. It’s actually been live for a few months, but ICYMI, here are some of the key data points and highlights:

  • The average iPhone user in the U.S. downloaded 47 apps in 2018, up from 44 in 2017.
  • The average number of apps installed is rising — up 15% from 2016. In the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Australia, users had more than 100 apps downloaded in 2018.
  • Smartphone users spend the most time using their top 5 apps. In 2017, the top 5 accounted for 87% of usage. Now (Apr. 2019) it’s 83%. The No. 1 app had a 49% share of the time spent, now it’s 44%.
  • The number of smartphone users in the U.S. will grow just 3% in 2019, compared with 13.2% in India and 12.1% in Indonesia.
  • Related, app downloads grew 165% in India from 2016 to 2018. In China, 70%. In Indonesia, 55%. And in Brazil, 25%. The U.S. app downloads grew just 5%.
  • In June 2019, the App Store had 1.8 million apps compared with Google Play’s 3.1 million.
  • 43% of iOS app install referrals came from Facebook properties, and only 6.6% came from Google properties.
  • Apple Search Ads drove 12% of non-organic installs in May 2019.
  • In-app video ads outperform display ads. Install-to-register rates for video were 35.1% in Q1
    2019 on the Liftoff network, compared with 28.5% for display ads.
  • App engagement drop-off rates after day one are the biggest in shopping apps. (25% engagement after the first day, but 8% at 30 days). Travel also sees a big drop-off. (20% after the first day and 6% after 30 days).

Headlines

iOS Bug Squashing: Apple fixed the iOS bug that killed your background apps. Apple this week finally squashed a very annoying bug in iOS 13 that made the OS overly aggressive about killing background apps and tasks. Apps like Safari, YouTube, Overcast and others were impacted, leading users to lose emails or the video they were watching just when they switched away for a few seconds. What Apple can’t fix is a growing concern that Apple has “lost the plot” following a series of extremely buggy software updates across its product line, which made users hesitant to upgrade to macOS Catalina, and bricked people’s HomePods.

Google admits it can’t secure the Play Store on its own: Google this week announced partnerships with security firms ESET, Lookout, and Zimperium to form what it has branded the “App Defense Alliance.” The goal, the company says, is to unite the security industry to fight malicious apps across Android’s ecosystem of 2.5 billion devices. Basically, Google will integrate its own detection systems with each partner’s scanning engine to help it uncover potential risks and threats. However, the fact that Google is now essentially outsourcing security to a partner ecosystem is an admission of failure, to some extent, about its abilities to keep the Play Store free from bad actors on its own. (But of course, we all knew that already, right?)

Photoshop for iPad is tanking: Adobe released its most important mobile app ever with this week’s launch of Photoshop for iPad. But fans panned the app because it’s missing several key features. Like RAW support! The app now has 2 stars out of 5…yikes. So what went wrong?

To read more, subscribe to Extra Crunch.

Microsoft uses AI to diagnose cervical cancer faster in India

More women in India die from cervical cancer than in any other country. This preventable disease kills around 67,000 women in India every year, more than 25% of the 260,000 deaths worldwide.

Effective screening and early detection can help reduce its incidence, but part of the challenge — and there are several parts — today is that the testing process to detect the onset of the disease is unbearably time-consuming.

This is because the existing methodology that cytopathologists use is time consuming to begin with, but also because there are very few of them in the nation. Could AI speed this up?

At SRL Diagnostics, the largest chain to offer diagnostic services in pathology and radiology in India, we are getting an early look of this. Last year, Microsoft partnered with SRL Diagnostics to co-create an AI Network for Pathology to ease the burden of cytopathologists and histopathologists.

SRL Diagnostics receives more than 100,000 Pap smear samples every year. About 98% of these samples are typically normal and only the remaining 2% samples require intervention. “We were looking for ways to ensure our cytopathologists were able to find those 2% abnormal samples faster,” explained Dr. Arnab Roy, Technical Lead for New Initiatives & Knowledge Management at SRL Diagnostics.

Cytopathologists at SRL Diagnostics studied digitally scanned versions of Whole Slide Imaging (WSI) slides, each comprising about 300-400 cells, manually and marked their observations, which were used as training data for Cervical Cancer Image Detection API.

A digitally scanned version of a Whole Slide Imaging (WSI) slide, which is used to train the AI model

Then there was the challenge of subjectivity. “Different cytopathologists examine different elements in a smear slide in a unique manner even if the overall diagnosis is the same. This is the subjectivity element in the whole process, which many a time is linked to the experience of the expert,” reveals Dr. Roy.

Manish Gupta, Principal Applied Researcher at Microsoft Azure Global Engineering, who worked closely with the team at SRL Diagnostics, said the idea was to create an AI algorithm that could identify areas that everybody was looking at and “create a consensus on the areas assessed.”

Cytopathologists across multiple labs and locations annotated thousands of tile images of cervical smear. They created discordant and concordant notes on each sample image.

“The images for which annotations were found to be discordant — that is if they were viewed differently by three team members — were sent to senior cytopathologists for final analysis,” Microsoft wrote in a blog post.

This week, the two revealed that their collaboration has started to show results. SRL Diagnostics has started an internal preview to use Cervical Cancer Image Detection API. The Cervical Cancer Image Detection API, which runs on Microsoft’s Azure, can quickly screen liquid-based cytology slide images for detection of cervical cancer in the early stages and return insights to pathologists in labs, the two said.

The AI model can now differentiate between normal and abnormal smear slides with accuracy and is currently under validation in labs for a period of three to six months. It can also classify smear slides based on the seven-subtypes of cervical cytopathological scale, the two wrote in a blog post.

During the internal preview period, the exercise will use more than half-a-million anonymized digital tile images. Following internal validation, the API will be previewed in external cervical cancer diagnostic workflows, including hospitals and other diagnostic centers.

“Cytopathologists now have to review fewer areas, 20 as of now, on a whole slide liquid-based cytology image and validate the positive cases thus bringing in greater efficiency and speeding up the initial screening process,” Microsoft wrote.

“The API has the potential of increasing the productivity of a cytopathology section by about four times. In a future scenario of automated slide preparation with assistance from AI, cytopathologists can do a job in two hours what would earlier take about eight hours!” Dr. Roy said.

SRL Diagnostics-Microsoft consortium said they are hopeful their APIs could find application in other fields of pathology such as diagnosis of kidney pathologies and in oral, pancreatic and liver cancers. The consortium also aims to expand its reach with tie-ups with private players and governments and expand the reach of the model even in remote geographies where the availability of histopathologists is a challenge.

The announcement this week is the latest example of Microsoft’s ongoing research work in India. The world’s second most populous nation has become a test bed for many American technology companies to build new products and services that solve local challenges as they look for their next billion users worldwide.

Last week, Microsoft announced its AI project was helping improve the way driving tests are conducted in India. The company has unveiled a score of tools for the Indian market in the last two years. Microsoft has previously developed tools to help farmers in India increase their crop yields and worked with hospitals to prevent avoidable blindness. Last year, the company partnered with Apollo Hospitals to create an AI-powered API customized to predict risk of heart diseases in India.

Also last year, the company also worked with cricket legend Anil Kumble to develop a tracking device that helps youngsters analyze their batting performance. Microsoft has also tied up with insurance firm ICICI Lombard to help it process customers’ repair claims and renew lapsed policies using an AI system.

Corporate, public investments spur interest in Pacific Northwest startups

Cities have always been America’s centers of power, driving the economy forward through competition. But now, they’re ceasing to lead the country’s innovation.

As jobs and talent have clustered, expertise has spilled over urban boundaries. In locations like the Gulf Coast, Texas Triangle, Great Lakes and Southern California, metropolitan areas are cooperating across borders to share new ideas. Eleven of these have earned the title of “megaregion,” and they host some of the continent’s cutting-edge centers of technology.

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor — the strip of land down the West Coast from Vancouver, Canada to Portland, Oregon — is perhaps the best example. Home to powerhouses like Microsoft, Amazon, Nike, Lululemon, Boeing and Intel, the area has seen large investments from companies hoping to encourage further cooperation. Over the past five years, state and provincial governments have signed formal agreements for collaboration, and executive-filled conferences are being held to encourage new partnerships.

Why are businesses and government organizations investing so much into the region? Challenge Seattle CEO and former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire believes it’s the evolution of a trend that’s been unfolding for decades.

“For many years, a number of international companies from Seattle have been putting Canadian headquarters in Vancouver,” she says. “So without anybody deliberately thinking about how we could work together, it was already actually happening. These organizations have decided to capitalize on [what] was happening from the ground up, and build out a vision, and bring us all together so we can really magnify the success of what’s already happening on the ground.”

Local support

The West Coast’s urban centers are linked by more than shared geography and, as Gregoire jokes, a love of the Seattle Seahawks — the Pacific Northwest is characterized by an open and inclusive culture, heterogeneous populations and creating technology with a focus on social good. Economically, too, there are similarities. West Coast cities have historically turned to Asian and South Asian markets for trade, as well as looking to each other. Washington State exports more to British Columbia than it does to all other Canadian provinces combined, and if Washington State were a country, it would represent B.C.’s third-largest international export market

For Bill Tam, a member of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor steering committee and former president of BC Tech, Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland have different reasons to support the megaregion.

“In Vancouver, which has a great startup ecosystem, a lot of those companies and a lot of the research organizations have really bought into this idea of being part of something bigger and more substantive,” he says. “I think on the U.S. side, what was interesting was that we saw the impetus come from larger companies — particularly Microsoft, but they’re not the only ones. Everyone from the Nordstroms to the REIs really see the value in learning and working together to try and build leverage, and to accelerate the things they want to do.”

Tam’s hope for the region’s success comes from its ability to share resources across cities. Vancouver, for instance, is known for its highly-educated workforce: the location’s nature-filled setting and welcoming immigration policies attracts many qualified tech employees. With its industry focused on startups, though, it lacks larger brands and anchor companies that would help propel it onto the global stage. 

The Seattle area, however, has the opposite problem. America’s tight immigration regulations make it hard for companies to secure qualified talent, but the influence of tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon mean the city is a hotbed for international investment and innovation. By joining forces — and by integrating Portland, which sits somewhere between both poles — the Cascadia region, Tam believes, can emerge as a powerful global competitor. 

“I think the long-term vision for Cascadia is to feel like it is an economic region that is not only the best place to build new innovations, but also a cohesive area that understands the values of collaboration,” he says. “It ties together all the responsible aspects of how we live — whether it’s on the sustainability agenda, the environment agenda, and how we actually treat each other as an open and diverse society.”

Vancouver Skyline, (lee robinson) unsplash

Photo: Lee Robinson/Unsplash

Areas of expertise

Aside from giants Amazon and Microsoft’s dominance in ecommerce, software, and cloud-based computing, the area has spawned niche areas of expertise. President and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia Greg D’Avignon believes those sectors will help elevate Cascadia’s profile.

“There’s a myriad of interesting companies here in British Columbia that are driving innovation,” he says. “In the quantum space, there’s D-Wave Systems, 1QBit, and others. D-Wave is the first commercial quantum computing company in the world, and it’s driving significant and complex computations on datasets to try to resolve issues that are endemic to challenges we have in terms of climate, personal health, aging, and growing populations. Life sciences is another important sector. There are some very interesting companies in the personalized medicine and health business — we’ve got Zymeworks […] and a myriad of other companies [that] are changing the nature of population-based healthcare.”

The region is also well-regarded in the virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) space. Microsoft developed one of the leading AR headsets — the HoloLens — in the Pacific Northwest, and Vancouver has since been recognized as the world’s second-largest VR and AR ecosystem. More than 230 companies are located in the city, drawing on its history of gaming and visual effects to develop everything from surgical-training software to AAA-aspiring titles.

As well as individual successes in the consumer blockchain space with viral game Cryptokitties and data aggregation with Hootsuite, Cascadia is known for technical apparel, with the likes of Lululemon, REI, Eddie Bauer, Arc’teryx, and Nike choosing the region as their home. With Amazon’s monopoly on online retail, the West Coast leads North America in merchandizing tech.

“When we talk about some of the foundational pillars in the corridor, we’re talking about the movement of people and goods across the border,” D’Avignon says. “We’re talking about bringing together postsecondary in a way that is important. That’s all rooted deeply in how we look at making this region better. And then as we learn, how do we share that learning and those commercial opportunities with the rest of the world?”