Microsoft to acquire machine learning startup Bonsai, fueling AI efforts

Bonsai co-founder and CEO Mark Hammond.

Microsoft is adding more firepower to its artificial intelligence arm. The tech giant has agreed to acquire Bonsai, a San Francisco-based startup that helps enterprise companies add machine learning and AI capabilities into their existing operations.

Founded in 2014 by former Microsoft engineers Mark Hammond and Keen Browne, Bonsai’s technology allows customers in industries like energy, manufacturing, and automotive build AI into their intelligent systems and processes. Its automated platform lets subject matter experts train autonomous systems, regardless of AI knowledge.

“Bonsai does for AI what databases do for data: abstracting away the low level complexity of artificial intelligence, and providing developers with the run-time environment and tooling to program AI models,” the company says in a video on its website.

Bonsai’s 42 employees will become part of Microsoft’s AI and Research group, which has been at the center of a major technological shift inside the company.

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“To realize this vision of making AI more accessible and valuable for all, we have to remove the barriers to development, empowering every developer, regardless of machine learning expertise, to be an AI developer,” Gurdeep Pall, an executive with Microsoft’s AI Research group, wrote in a blog post. “Bonsai has made tremendous progress here and Microsoft remains committed to furthering this work.”

Microsoft was already an investor in Bonsai via its M12 venture capital arm. Bonsai had raised $13.6 million to date; other investors include NEA, ABB Technology Ventures; Samsung NEXT; and Siemens. The company declined to comment on its roadmap in regard to current customers and features. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Here’s more about Bonsai from Pall’s blog post:

The company is building a general-purpose, deep reinforcement learning platform especially suited for enterprises leveraging industrial control systems such as robotics, energy, HVAC, manufacturing and autonomous systems in general. This includes unique machine-teaching innovations, automated model generation and management, a host of APIs and SDKs for simulator integration, as well as pre-built support for leading simulations all packaged in one end-to-end platform.

Bonsai’s platform combined with rich simulation tools and reinforcement learning work in Microsoft Research becomes the simplest and richest AI toolchain for building any kind of autonomous system for control and calibration tasks. This toolchain will compose with Azure Machine Learning running on the Azure Cloud with GPUs and Brainwave, and models built with it will be deployed and managed in Azure IoT, giving Microsoft an end-to-end solution for building, operating and enhancing “brains” for autonomous systems.

Other AI-related acquisitions by Microsoft in recent years include Semantic Machines; Maluuba; SwiftKey; and Genee. It also swooped up GitHub; FlipGrid; and four game studios in the past month.

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