Background: Microsoft Cognitive Services
Microsoft is one of the three largest enterprise cloud providers, competing amongst others with Amazon and IBM. Its cloud service, Azure, generated $18.6B in 2017 . Azure provides businesses with a vast set of computing services such as storage, databases, and machine learning capabilities delivered over the internet. Microsoft’s suite of AI offerings, known as Microsoft Cognitive Services, is one of the largest in the industry and allows businesses to execute machine and deep-learning algorithms easily, without having to invest in expensive and specialized infrastructure . Leveraging Microsoft Cognitive Services, developers can harness the power of AI in areas such as Vision, Speech, Language, and Search.
Cloud & AI: Satya Nadella’s strategic vision for Microsoft
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is investing heavily in the company’s Cloud & AI business. In his book ‘Hit Refresh’ , he outlines his vision for the future of the company, which is largely driven by the growth of its Cloud platform. In fact, advances in AI & machine learning have unlocked unprecedented possibilities that are changing the way Microsoft can serve its mission to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”. In his address to the developer community at the Microsoft BUILD annual developer conference in May 2018, Satya Nadella also brought attention the tech giant’s responsibility in ensuring that “the technology [built] is trusted and benefits all” .
AI for Accessibility: Empowering over 1 Billion people to achieve more
Going a step further, Satya Nadella’s personal goal and an integral part of his strategic vision for the company is to create products and services that are inclusive and accessible by design .
One important community that has historically been underserved in the industry are the over 1 Billion people in the world living with a disability. As technology permeates through more and more aspects of our lives e.g. social, workplace, education, and only 1 out of 10 people with disabilities have access to assistive technology , this group is one of the most at risk of being further marginalized in the digital world. AI has a big role to play in filling this gap.
This also represents a huge opportunity for Microsoft to set its cloud service apart as the leading innovation platform in this area. As part of the company’s commitment to push accessible innovation forward, it recently launched AI for Accessibility, a $25 million, five-year program aimed at empowering people with disabilities through AI. The program combines innovation grants, technology investments, and will incorporate AI for Accessibility innovations into Microsoft’s cloud services . The first grantee of the program, Zyrobotics, developed ‘ReadAble Storiez’, a reading fluency program that uses Microsoft Cognitive Services to create personalized content for children with a wide range of learning needs and empowers families who don’t have access to a speech therapist .
A two-fold approach to product innovation: partnerships and internal R&D
Prior to the official launch of AI for Accessibility, several companies had already started leveraging Microsoft’s Cognitive Services APIs to support people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. Microsoft Translator  was developed in collaboration with the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and helps deaf or hard-of-hearing people follow conversations with real-time captioning.
Figure 1: Microsoft Translator used in an RIT lecture
Figure 2: Helpicto, an application helping children with autism and their families communicate more effectively
In addition to its external partnerships, Microsoft is also differentiating its core offerings through AI-powered, accessible design. Starting in Windows 10, Microsoft introduced Eye control capability, enabling people with mobility impairments such as a motor neuron disease to control their computer through eye movement. 
Figure 3: Windows Eye Control
Seeing AI is another powerful mobile application that helps people with visual impairments navigate their day-to-day life by narrating the world around them .
Going forward: Recommendations
My recommendation would be for Microsoft to solidify its position as an industry leader in accessible digital design to better serve its mission and differentiate itself against competitors.
To do so, the company needs to reinforce its investment in the area of AI-powered, accessible design, both internally and through external partnerships, incubation programs, and acquisitions.
It also needs to continue adding value to, and expand the Azure ecosystem through R&D investments in cloud and AI.
Finally, the company should continue to push for product development processes that are customer-obsessed and inclusive by design. This will require a continued shift in the culture and training across all the stakeholders involved in the development process.
In order for Microsoft to bring the power of AI to every person on the planet, the company needs to think about how to best serve customers in locations where internet connectivity is not ubiquitous. How can product innovation help fill this gap? (784)