How Microsoft is opening up AI’s ‘black box’

Erez Barak

Erez Barak, senior director of product for Microsoft’s AI Division, speaks at the Global Artificial Intelligence Conference in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Artificial intelligence can work wonders, but often it works in mysterious ways.

Machine learning is based on the principle that a software program can analyze a huge set of data and fine-tune its algorithms to detect patterns and come up with solutions that humans may miss. That’s how Google DeepMind’s Alpha Go AI agent learned to play the ancient game of Go (and other games) well enough to beat expert players.

But if programmers and users can’t figure out how AI algorithms came up with their results, that black-box behavior can be a cause for concern. It may become impossible to judge whether AI agents have picked up unjustified biases or racial profiling from their data sets.

That’s why terms such as transparency, explainability and interpretability are playing an increasing role in the AI ethics debate.

The European Commission includes transparency and traceability among its requirements for AI systems, in line with the “right to explanation” laid out in data-protection laws. The French government already has committed to publishing the code that powers the algorithms it uses. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Technology Research and Investigation has been charged with providing guidance on algorithmic transparency.

Transparency figures in Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s “10 Laws of AI” as well — and Erez Barak, senior director of product for Microsoft’s AI Division, addressed the issue head-on today at the Global Artificial Intelligence Conference in Seattle.

“We believe that transparency is a key,” he said. “How many features did we consider? Did we consider just these five? Or did we consider 5,000 and choose these five?”

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JetSuiteX to launch Seattle-Oakland air service

JetSuiteX jets

JetSuiteX flies out of private air terminals on Embraer 135 aircraft. (JetSuiteX via PRNewsfoto)

JetSuiteX says it’s starting air service between Seattle’s Boeing Field and Oakland International Airport in July, with flights that combine the convenience of private jets with the pricing of commercial airlines.

Up to three round-trip flights a day will be offered starting on July 1, at prices that range as low as $99 one-way.

The expanded service will put JetSuiteX, a California-based airline that has a code-sharing partnership with JetBlue, in competition with Alaska Airlines, Spirit, Delta, American and Southwest. (JetBlue also offers SEA-OAK flights.)

Even $99 isn’t as cheap as Alaska’s lowest fares for flights between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Oakland, which can go as low as $69 one-way, But JetSuiteX is banking on the benefit of avoiding travel delays between Seattle’s urban core and Sea-Tac, as well as the security-line congestion that travelers often face once they get to Sea-Tac.

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Wing wins FAA go-ahead for drone delivery service

Wing drone delivery

Wing’s drone makes a delivery. (Wing Photo)

Alphabet’s Wing venture has stolen a march on Amazon’s plans for drone domination by winning air carrier certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Air Carrier Certification means that we can begin a commercial service delivering goods from local businesses to homes in the United States,” Wing said today in a Medium post celebrating the milestone.

Wing was spun out last year from Alphabet’s X tech incubator (formerly known as Google X), and has been taking part in an FAA-backed pilot program to push the envelope for drone operations in Southwest Virginia.

The company has also conducted a test program in Australia that involved more than 3,000 drone deliveries to doorsteps, backyards and driveways. In all, Wing’s drones have flown more than 70,000 test flights, and is starting up delivery operations in Finland.

Wing said the data submitted to the FAA for certification showed that “a delivery by wing carries a lower risk to pedestrians than the same trip made by car.”

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Microsoft grants $100K to Airtonomy drone startup

North Dakota drone

The University of North Dakota is testing agricultural aerial imagery applications with drones. (UND Photo)teceeeeeeeeee

Microsoft has awarded a $100,000 TechSpark grant to support Airtonomy, a startup that’s partnering with the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation to blaze a trail for drone applications in North Dakota’s “Silidrone Valley.”

The seed money unlocks nearly $570,000 in additional funding for Airtonomy from local investors, Microsoft said today in a news release.

“TechSpark saw the drone innovation in North Dakota’s Red River Valley that is driving exciting advances for the U.S. drone industry and wanted to be a part of it,” said Kate Behncken, general manager of Global Community Engagement at Microsoft. “This cutting-edge project has the potential to increase crop yields and boost the production of renewable energy through safe drone advancements created locally, leading to greater economic opportunities for North Dakotans.”

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Elon Musk unveils Tesla’s Robotaxi concept

Robotaxi front seat

Tesla shows off a configuration for a Robotaxi front seat without a steering wheel. (Tesla via YouTube)

Tesla’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, laid out a vision for a huge fleet of self-driving electric vehicles that owners could share with friends or other riders, with Tesla getting a cut of the proceeds.

The Robotaxi concept relies on the ability to make Tesla cars fully autonomous, to the point that the steering wheels can be removed.

“By the middle of next year, we’ll have over a million Tesla cars on the road with full self-driving hardware, feature complete, at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention,” Musk told investors at Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.

Musk acknowledged that the timetable could be in flux, due to regulatory concerns as well as his tendency to get overly optimistic about timetables.

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MagniX will put motors on Eviation electric plane

Alice electric plane

A wire-frame illustration shows Eviation’s design for the all-electric Alice airplane, with MagniX’s motors at the wingtips and on the tail. (Eviation via MagniX)

Eviation says it has selected Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX to become a propulsion system provider for its Alice all-electric airplane, a nine-seater that’s due to go into commercial service as early as 2022.

An Alice aircraft equipped with three 375-horsepower Magni250 motors will make its debut at the Paris Air Show in June, MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski said.

“They’re going to have a fully functioning aircraft, their first of type, at the Paris Air Show,” Ganzarski told GeekWire. “Our propulsion system is going to be on it.”

After the show, the plane is due to be shipped to Arizona and begin flight testing by the end of the year. Eviation, which is headquartered in Israel, wants to have the plane certified by the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of 2021 and aims to start delivering the planes to customers in 2022.

Customers will be able to choose between MagniX’s propulsion system and a different system offered by Siemens. The Siemens propulsion deal was announced in February.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon suffers anomaly during test

Crew Dragon

A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is hauled aboard a recovery ship at the end of a mission to the International Space Station in March. (SpaceX Photo)

SpaceX suffered a setback in preparations for its first crewed launch to the International Space Station today when one of its Crew Dragon spacecraft experienced an anomaly during an engine test firing in Florida.

No injuries were reported, but the anomaly threw up a huge pillar of smoke from SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 during testing of the Dragon’s Super Draco thrusters. The static-fire test was being conducted in preparation for an in-flight abort test.

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