Microsoft aims to train and certify 15,000 workers on A.I. skills by 2022

Microsoft is investing in certification and training for a range of A.I.-related skills in partnership with education provider General Assembly, the companies announced this morning. The goal is to train some 15,000 people by 2022 in order to increase the pool of A.I. talent around the world. The training will focus on A.I., machine learning, data science, cloud and data engineering and more.

In the new program’s first year, Microsoft will focus on training 2,000 workers to transition to a A.I. and machine learning role. And over the full three years, it will train an additional 13,000 workers with A.I.-related skills.

As part of this effort, Microsoft is joining General Assembly’s new A.I. Standards Board along with other companies. Over the next six months, the Board will help to define A.I. skills standards, develop assessments, design a career framework, and create credentials for A.I. skills.

The training developed will also focus on filing the A.I. jobs currently available where Microsoft technologies are involved. As Microsoft notes, many workers today are not skilled enough for roles involving the use of Azure in aerospace, manufacturing and elsewhere. The training, it says, will focus on serving the needs of its customers who are looking to employ A.I. talent.

This will also include the creation of an A.I. Talent Network that will source candidates for long-term employment as well as contract work. General Assembly will assist with this effort by connecting its 22 campuses and the broader Adecco ecosystem to this jobs pipeline. (GA sold to staffing firm Adecco last year for $413 million.)

Microsoft cited the potential for A.I.’s impact on job creation as a reason behind the program, noting that up to 133 million new roles may be created by 2022 as a result of the new technologies. Of course, it’s also very much about making sure its own software and cloud customers can find people who are capable of working with its products, like Azure.

“As a technology company committed to driving innovation, we have a responsibility to help workers access the AI training they need to ensure they thrive in the workplace of today and tomorrow,” said Jean-Philippe Courtois, executive vice president and president of Global Sales, Marketing and Operations at Microsoft, in a statement. “We are thrilled to combine our industry and technical expertise with General Assembly to help close the skills gap and ensure businesses can maximize their potential in our AI-driven economy.”

Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

When your game tops a hundred million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokemon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters, and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, since Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokemon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places, and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs, and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick, and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

A pig from Minecraft showing in the real world via augmented reality.Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid, and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters, and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things, chests, mobs, and encounters, are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, since the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should, and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but you get the idea.

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press, we got to experience a couple build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone).

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokemon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokemon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well, and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it should be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t like take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The Hololens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

Rivals in gaming, Microsoft and Sony team up on cloud services

For the last two decades, Sony and Microsoft’s gaming divisions have been locked in all-out war against one another: on price, on hardware, on franchises, on exclusives… you name it. But it seems they’ve set their enmity aside temporarily that they might better prevent that filthy casual, Google, from joining the fray.

The official team-up, documented in a memorandum of understanding, was announced today, though details are few. But this is clear enough:

The two companies will explore joint development of future cloud solutions in Microsoft Azure to support their respective game and content-streaming services. In addition, the two companies will explore the use of current Microsoft Azure datacenter-based solutions for Sony’s game and content-streaming services.

Of course there is no doubt that Sony could have gone with a number of other cloud services for its gaming-on-demand services. It already runs one, PlayStation Now, but the market is expected to expand over the next few years much like cord cutters have driven traditional TV and movie watchers to Netflix and other streaming services. Expansion would surely prove expensive and complicated.

The most salient challenger is likely Google and its new Stadia game streaming service, which of course has a huge advantage in its global presence, brand recognition and unique entry points: search and YouTube. The possibility of searching for a game and being able to play it literally five seconds later is an amazing one, and really only something Google can pull off right now.

That makes Google a threat. And Microsoft and Sony have enough threats already, what with the two of them making every exclusive and chip partnership count, the resurgence of Nintendo with the immensely popular Switch and the complex new PC-and-mobile-focused gaming market making consoles look outdated. Apple Arcade exists, too, but I don’t know that anyone is worried about it, exactly.

Perhaps there was a call made on the special direct line each has to the other, where they just said “truce… until we reduce Google Stadia to rubble and salt the earth. Also Nvidia maybe.”

We don’t actually have to imagine, though. As Sony President and CEO Kenichiro Yoshida noted in the announcement: “For many years, Microsoft has been a key business partner for us, though of course the two companies have also been competing in some areas. I believe that our joint development of future cloud solutions will contribute greatly to the advancement of interactive content.”

Sony doesn’t lack technical chops, or the software necessary to pull off a streaming service — but it may simply make more sense to deploy via Microsoft’s Azure than bring its own distribution systems up to par. No doubt Microsoft is happy to welcome a customer as large as Sony to its stable, and any awkwardness from the two competing elsewhere is secondary to that. Google is a more existential competitor in many ways, so it makes sense that Microsoft would favor partnering with a partial rival against it.

Sony has long been in this boat itself. Its image sensors and camera technology can be found in phones and DSLRs that compete with its own products — but the revenue and feedback it has built up as a result have let it maintain its dominance.

Speaking of which, the two companies also plan to collaborate on imaging, combining Sony’s sensor tech with Microsoft’s AI work. This is bound to find its way to applications in robotics and autonomous vehicles, though competition is fierce there, and neither company has a real branded presence. Perhaps they aim to change that… together.

7 accessibility-focused startups snag grants from Microsoft

Microsoft has selected seven lucky startups to receive grants from its AI for Accessibility program. The growing companies aim to empower people with disabilities to take part in tech and the internet economy, from improving job searches to predicting seizures.

Each of the seven companies receives professional-level Azure AI resources and support, cash to cover the cost of data collection and handling, and access to Microsoft’s experts in AI, project management, and accessibility.

Companies apply online and a team of accessibility and market experts at Microsoft evaluate them on their potential impact, data policies, feasibility, and so on. The five-year, $25 million program started in 2018, and evaluation is a rolling process with grants coming out multiple times per year. This one happens to be on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. So be aware!

Among this round’s grantees is Our Ability, a company started by John Robinson, who was born without complete limbs, and all his life has faced serious challenges getting and keeping a job. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice that of people without, and some disabilities nearly preclude full-time employment altogether.

Yet there are still opportunities for such people, who are just as likely to have a head for project management or a knack for coding as anyone else — but they can be difficult to find. Robinson is working on a site that connects companies with jobs suited to disabled applicants to likely candidates.

“Our goal is to empower employers to understand and leverage the increasingly valuable employment population of people with disabilities, proven to lower job turnover rates and boost morale and productivity – because a commitment to an inclusive workplace culture begins within,” Robinson wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “Employers have previously been at a disadvantage to accelerate in this regard, because many job-seeking tools are not designed with people with disabilities in mind.”

CEO of Our Ability John Robinson sitting, smiling and in front of his laptop

John Robinson of Our Ability.

The plan that attracted Microsoft is Robinson’s idea to make a chatbot to help collect critical data from disabled applicants. And before you say “chatbot? What year is this?” remember that while chatbots may be passé for those of us able to navigate forms and websites easily, that’s not the case with people who can’t do so. A chat-based interface is simple and accessible, requiring little on the user’s end except basic text input.

Pison is another grantee whose technology would come in handy here. People with physical disabilities often can’t use a mouse or trackpad the way others do. Founder Dexter Ang saw this happen in person as his late mother’s physical abilities deteriorated under the effects of ALS.

His solution is to use a electromyography armband (you might be familiar with Myo) to detect the limited movements of someone with that type of affliction and convert those into mouse movements. The company was started a couple years ago and has been undergoing ongoing development and testing among ALS patients, who have shown that they can use the tech successfully after just a few minutes.

Voiceitt is a speech recognition engine that focuses on people with nonstandard voices. Disabilities and events like strokes can make a person’s voice difficult for friends and family to understand, let alone the comparatively picky processes of speech recognition.

Google recently took on this same problem with Project Euphonia, which along with the company’s other efforts towards accessibility was given an impressive amount of stage time at I/O last week.

Here are the remainder of the grantees (descriptions are from Microsoft):

 

  • University of Sydney (Australia) researchers are developing a wearable sensory warning system to help the 75 million people living with epilepsy better predict and manage seizures to live more independently.
  • Birmingham City University (United Kingdom) researchers are developing a system that enables people with limited mobility to control digital platforms using voice commands and the movement of their eyes.
  • Massachusetts Eye and Ear (Boston, MA) researchers are working on a vision assistance mobile app that offers enhanced location and navigation services for people who are blind or have low vision.
  • University of California Berkley (Berkley, CA) researchers are creating a mobile app for individuals who are blind or have low-vision to provide captions and audio descriptions of their surroundings.

The image up top, by the way, is from iTherapy’s InnerVoice, an app that provides AI-powered descriptions of images taken by kids who have trouble communicating. It’s a great example of cutting-edge tech being applied in a niche that helps a small population a lot rather than a large population a little.

Microsoft has been a good steward of accessibility for years and it seems to be leaning into that, as well it should. President Brad Smith had a lot to say about it in a blog post last year, and the commitment seems strong going into this one.

 

Oh no, there’s A.I. whiskey now

Forget all those whiskey brands from musicians and celebs — there’s A.I. whiskey now. Microsoft this week announced it has teamed up with Finnish tech company Fourkind and Sweden-based distillery Mackmyra Whisky to create the “world’s first whisky developed with artificial intelligence.”

Oh no!

Here’s how it will work.

As part of the distillation process, whiskey first spends time — typically years — sitting in charred wooden casks. This turns the clear liquor a darker color, and gives it a unique flavor. How long it stays in the casks, and what the casks held before — like bourbon, wine, sherry, etc. — helps create a specific recipe. Master distillers tweak all these variables along with the different ingredients used to create the whiskey in the first place to come up with a variety of blends.

Until now, this entire process is done by humans with a specialized set of skills. For the A.I. blend, Mackmyra is turning part of the job over to the machines.

The distillery is feeding its existing recipes, sales data and customer preferences to machine learning models, so the A.I. can suggest what recipes it should make next.

The A.I., Mackmyra says, is capable of generating over 70 million different recipes. And it will highlight those it predicts will be most popular and of the highest quality, based on the cask types that are currently on hand.

These models are powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and Azure cognitive services. Fourkind developed the A.I. algorithms involved, explains Microsoft in its announcement.

However, the distillery notes it’s not actually replacing its Master Blenders with A.I. Instead, it’s using the A.I. to create the recipes which are then curated by the (still human) experts.

“The work of a Master Blender is not at risk,” insists Angela D’Orazio, Mackmyra’s Master Blender. “While the whiskey recipe is created by A.I., we still benefit from a person’s expertise and knowledge, especially the human sensory part, that can never be replaced by any program. We believe that the whiskey is A.I.-generated, but human-curated. Ultimately, the decision is made by a person.”

Microsoft says this is the first time A.I. has been used to augment the process of making whiskey. The finished product will be available in Autumn 2019.

Despite not knowing how the juice turns out, Fourkind wants to turn its algorithms to other industries where complex recipes are involved — including those for other beverages, and also things like perfumes, sweets, or sneaker designs.

This would not be the first time that A.I. has been put to work in a more artistic field.

For example, at Google’s I/O developer conference this month, the company showed off how A.I. could be used in artistic endeavors — including music, visual art, and even fashion.

Of course, when A.I. is tasked with making art, the end results tend to be strange, unworldly and sometimes a little frightening.

Which begs the question: how the hell will an A.I. whiskey taste?

(via TNW

 

Microsoft open-sources a crucial algorithm behind its Bing Search services

Microsoft today announced that it has open-sourced a key piece of what makes its Bing search services able to quickly return search results to its users. By making this technology open, the company hopes that developers will be able to build similar experiences for their users in other domains where users search through vast data troves, including in retail, though in this age of abundant data, chances are developers will find plenty of other enterprise and consumer use cases, too.

The piece of software the company open-sourced today is a library Microsoft developed to make better use of all the data it collected and AI models it built for Bing .

“Only a few years ago, web search was simple. Users typed a few words and waded through pages of results,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “Today, those same users may instead snap a picture on a phone and drop it into a search box or use an intelligent assistant to ask a question without physically touching a device at all. They may also type a question and expect an actual reply, not a list of pages with likely answers.”

With the Space Partition Tree and Graph (SPTAG) algorithm that is at the core of the open-sourced Python library, Microsoft is able to search through billions of pieces of information in milliseconds.

Vector search itself isn’t a new idea, of course. What Microsoft has done, though, is apply this concept to working with deep learning models. First, the team takes a pre-trained model and encodes that data into vectors, where every vector represents a word or pixel. Using the new SPTAG library, it then generates a vector index. As queries come in, the deep learning model translates that text or image into a vector and the library finds the most related vectors in that index.

“With Bing search, the vectorizing effort has extended to over 150 billion pieces of data indexed by the search engine to bring improvement over traditional keyword matching,” Microsoft says. “These include single words, characters, web page snippets, full queries and other media. Once a user searches, Bing can scan the indexed vectors and deliver the best match.”

The library is now available under the MIT license and provides all of the tools to build and search these distributed vector indexes. You can find more details about how to get started with using this library — as well as application samples — here.

Huawei launches AI-backed database to target enterprise customers

China’s Huawei is making a serious foray into the enterprise business market after it unveiled a new database management product on Wednesday, putting it in direct competition with entrenched vendors like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft.

The Shenzhen-based company, best known for making smartphones and telecom equipment, claims its newly minted database uses artificial intelligence capabilities to improve tuning performance, a process that traditionally involves human administrators, by over 60 percent.

Called the GaussDB, the database works both locally as well as on public and private clouds. When running on Huawei’s own cloud, GaussDB provides data warehouse services for customers across the board, from the financial, logistics, education to automotive industries.

The database launch was first reported by The Information on Tuesday citing sources saying it is designed by the company’s secretive database research group called Gauss and will initially focus on the Chinese market.

The announcement comes at a time when Huawei’s core telecom business is drawing scrutiny in the West over the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese government. That segment accounted for 40.8 percent of Huawei’s total revenues in 2018, according to financial details released by the privately-held firm.

Huawei’s consumer unit, which is driven by its fast-growing smartphone and device sales, made up almost a half of the company’s annual revenues. Enterprise businesses made up less than a quarter of earnings, but Huawei’s new push into database management is set to add new fuel to the segment.

Meanwhile, at Oracle, more than 900 employees, most of whom worked for its 1,600-staff research and development center in China, were recently let go amid a major company restructuring, multiple media outlets reported earlier this month.

Data provided to TechCrunch by Boss Zhipin offers clues to the layoff: The Chinese recruiting platform has recently seen a surge in newly registered users who work at Oracle China. But the door is still open for new candidates as the American giant is currently recruiting for more than 100 positions through Boss, including many related to cloud computing.

Stocks gain back some ground as investors assess the trade war’s impact

Stocks had their best trading day in a while on Tuesday as investors took a break from selling to assess the actual effects of the trade war with China.

Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 gained back some of their losses with the DJIA climbing 207.06 points to close at 25,532.05 and the S&P hitting 2,834.41, up 0.8%. The Nasdaq Composite Index wrapped its trading day at 7,734.49.

Tech stocks like Cisco Systems and Microsoft both rose to lead the way for a sector that could be hit hard by any prolonged trade war between the U.S. and China. Even Apple was up 1.6% on the day after taking a bit of a pummeling as both the U.S. and China announced new rounds of tariffs and import duties.

While some investors are calling the rally more of a dead cat bounce than something that markets can sustain, other investors point out that the fundamentals behind U.S. investing haven’t changed, even as costs are set to rise.

Indeed, economists cited by The New York Times think the tariffs gross domestic product in the U.S. will only decline by 0.3 percentage points at most over the long term.

Still, that assessment doesn’t take into account the impact on consumer wallets and consumer confidence should a prolonged trade war and rising prices force everyday Americans to rethink their spending habits.

Even the modest gains from today’s trading don’t recoup all of the losses the markets have suffered since the new round of tit for tat tariffs began when the U.S. walked away from negotiations and imposed new duties on goods.

Announcing TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise this September in San Francisco

Of the many categories in the tech world, none is more ferociously competitive than enterprise. For decades, SAP, Oracle, Adobe, Microsoft, IBM and Salesforce, to name a few of the giants, have battled to deliver the tools businesses want to become more productive and competitive. That market is closing in on $500 billion in sales per year, which explains why hundreds of new enterprise startups launch every year and dozens are acquired by the big incumbents trying to maintain their edge.

Last year alone, the top 10 enterprise acquisitions were worth $87 billion and included IBM’s acquiring Red Hat for $34 billion, SAP paying $8 billion for Qualtrics, Microsoft landing GitHub for $7.5 billion, Salesforce acquiring MuleSoft for $6.5 billion and Adobe grabbing Marketo for $4.75 billion. No startup category has made more VCs and founders wildly wealthy, and none has seen more mighty companies rise faster or fall harder. That technology and business thrill ride makes enterprise a category TechCrunch has long wanted to tackle head on.

TC Sessions: Enterprise (September 5 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center) will take on the big challenges and promise facing enterprise companies today. TechCrunch’s editors, notably Frederic Lardinois, Ron Miller and Connie Loizos, will bring to the stage founders and leaders from established and emerging companies to address rising questions like the promised revolution from machine learning and AI, intelligent marketing automation and the inevitability of the cloud, as well as the outer reaches of technology, like quantum and blockchain.

We’ll enlist proven enterprise-focused VCs to reveal where they are directing their early, middle and late-stage investments. And we’ll ask the most proven serial entrepreneurs to tell us what it really took to build that company, and which company they would like to create next. All throughout the show, TechCrunch’s editors will zero in on emerging enterprise technologies to sort the hype from the reality. Whether you are a founder, an investor, enterprise-minded engineer or a corporate CTO / CIO, TC Sessions: Enterprise will provide a valuable day of new insights and great networking.

Tickets are now available for purchase on our website at the early-bird rate of $395. Want to bring a group of people from your company? Get an automatic 15% savings when you purchase four or more tickets at once. Are you an early-stage startup? We have a limited number of Startup Demo Packages available for $2,000, which includes four tickets to attend the event. Students are invited to apply for a reduced-price student ticket at just $245. Additionally, for each ticket purchased for TC Sessions: Enterprise, you will also be registered for a complimentary Expo Only pass to TechCrunch Disrupt SF on October 2-4.

Interested in sponsoring TC Sessions: Enterprise? Fill out this form and a member of our sales team will contact you.

Two years after WannaCry, a million computers remain at risk

Two years ago today, a powerful ransomware began spreading across the world.

WannaCry spread like wildfire, encrypting hundreds of thousands of computers in over 150 countries in a matter of hours. It was the first time that ransomware, a malware that encrypts a user’s files and demands cryptocurrency in ransom to unlock them, had spread across the world in what looked like a coordinated cyberattack.

Hospitals across the U.K. declared a “major incident” after they were knocked offline by the malware. Government systems, railway networks and private companies were also hit.

Security researchers quickly realized the malware was spreading like a computer worm, across computers and over the network, using the Windows SMB protocol. Suspicion soon fell on a batch of highly classified hacking tools developed by the National Security Agency, which weeks earlier had been been stolen and published online for anyone to use.

“It’s real,” said Kevin Beaumont, a U.K.-based security researcher at the time. “The shit is going to hit the fan big style.”

WannaCry relied on stolen NSA-developed exploits, DoublePulsar and EternalBlue, to hack into Windows PCs and spread through the network. (Image: file photo)

An unknown hacker group — later believed to be working for North Korea — had taken those published NSA cyberweapons and launched their attack — likely not realizing how far the spread would go. The hackers used the NSA’s backdoor, DoublePulsar, to create a persistent backdoor that was used to deliver the WannaCry ransomware. Using the EternalBlue exploit, the ransomware spread to every other unpatched computer on the network.

A single vulnerable and internet-exposed system was enough to wreak havoc.

Microsoft, already aware of the theft of hacking tools targeting its operating systems, had released patches. But consumers and companies alike moved slowly to patch their systems.

In just a few hours, the ransomware had caused billions of dollars in damages. Bitcoin wallets associated with the ransomware were filling up by victims to get their files back — more often than not in vain

Marcus Hutchins, a malware reverse engineer and security researcher, was on vacation when the attack hit. “I picked a hell of a fucking week to take off work,” he tweeted. Cutting his vacation short, he got to work. Using data from his malware tracking system had found what became WannaCry’s kill switch — a domain name embedded in the code, which he registered and immediately saw the number of infections grind to a halt. Hutchins, who pleaded guilty to unrelated computer crimes last month, was hailed a hero for stemming the spread of the attack. Many have called for leniency if not a full presidential pardon for his efforts.

Trust in the intelligence services collapsed overnight. Lawmakers demanded to know how the NSA planned to mop up the hurricane of damage it had caused. It also kicked off a heated debate about how the government hoards vulnerabilities to use as offensive weapons to conduct surveillance or espionage — or when it should disclose bugs to vendors in order to get them fixed.

A month later, the world braced itself for a second round of cyberattacks in what felt like what would soon become the norm.

NotPetya, another ransomware which researchers also found a kill switch for, used the same DoublePulsar and EternalBlue exploits to ravish shipping giants, supermarkets and advertising agencies, which were left reeling from the attacks.

Two years on, the threat posed by the leaked NSA tools remains a concern.

As many as 1.7 million internet-connected endpoints are still vulnerable to the exploits, according to the latest data. Data generated by Shodan, a search engine for exposed databases and devices, puts the figure at the million mark — with most of the vulnerable devices in the U.S. But that only accounts for devices directly connected to the internet and not the potentially millions more devices connected to those infected servers. The number of vulnerable devices is likely significantly higher.

More than 400,000 exposed systems in the U.S. alone can be exploited using NSA’s stolen hacking tools. (Image: Shodan)

WannaCry continues to spread and occasionally still infects its targets. Beaumont said in a tweet Sunday that the ransomware remains largely neutered, unable to unpack and begin encrypting data, for reasons that remain a mystery.

But the exposed NSA tools, which remain at large and able to infect vulnerable computers, continue to be used to deliver all sorts of malware — and new victims continue to appear.

Just weeks before city of Atlanta was hit by ransomware, cybersecurity expert Jake Williams found its networks had been infected by the NSA tools. More recently, the NSA tools have been repurposed to infect networks with cryptocurrency mining code to generate money from the vast pools of processing power. Others have used the exploits to covertly ensnare thousands of computers to harness their bandwidth to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks by pummeling other systems with massive amounts of internet traffic.

WannaCry caused panic. Systems were down, data was lost, and money had to be spent. It was a wakeup call that society needed to do better at basic cybersecurity.

But with a million-plus unpatched devices still at risk, there remains ample opportunity for further abuse. What we may not have forgotten two years on, clearly more can be done to learn from the failings of the past.

Read more: