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Premonition takes disease tracking to the next level

Five years after launching an experiment to see if advanced sensors and artificial intelligence could spot the signs of a disease outbreak before it happens, Microsoft says it’s ramping up Project Premonition to create an honest-to-goodness biothreat protection network.

The network will involve setting up about 100 sensor stations in Texas’ Harris County, to track swarms of mosquitoes that could transmit diseases ranging from malaria and dengue fever to Zika and West Nile viruses. AI algorithms will analyze that tracking data for the telltale signs of an epidemic in the making, just as weather forecasting programs look for the signs of a storm on the way.

“It will really be almost like a weather map, the likes of which has not really been seen before in the mosquito vector space,” Ethan Jackson, director of Microsoft Premonition, told me.

The expansion of the Premonition program was announced today in conjunction with this week’s annual Microsoft Ignite conference for software developers.

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Microsoft launches into cloud space race with Amazon

Call it the Clash of the Cloud Titans: Today Microsoft is taking the wraps off Azure Orbital, a cloud-based satellite data processing platform that competes with Amazon Web Services’ Ground Station offering.

The launch of Azure Orbital, timed for this week’s Microsoft Ignite conference for developers, can be taken as another sign that the final frontier is the next frontier for cloud computing.

“Essentially, we’re building a ‘ground station as a service,’ ” Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer at Microsoft Azure, told GeekWire in advance of today’s unveiling.

“Satellites are becoming more and more important for a variety of reasons,” he said. “When it comes to cloud and data processing, obviously the cloud is a key part of any solution that goes into leveraging satellites, whether it’s imaging for weather, or natural disasters or ground communications.”

Like AWS Ground Station, Azure Orbital makes it possible for satellite operators to control their spacecraft via the cloud, or integrate satellite data with cloud-based storage and processing.

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Northwest researchers get in on a quantum leap

Microsoft, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington are playing supporting roles in the White House’s $1 billion effort to advance research into artificial intelligence and quantum information science.

Those three organizations have already been working together through the Northwest Quantum Nexus to develop the infrastructure for quantum computers, which promise to open up new possibilities in fields ranging from chemistry to systems optimization and financial modeling.

The initiatives announced today are likely to accelerate progress toward the development of commercial-scale quantum computers, Chetan Nayak, Microsoft’s general manager for quantum hardware, said in a blog posting.

“Today marks one of the U.S. government’s largest investments in the field,” he said. “It is also a noteworthy moment for Microsoft, which is providing scientific leadership in addition to expertise in workforce development and technology transfer.”

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Award recognizes research on DNA data storage

Strauss and Ceze
Microsoft’s Karin Strauss and the University of Washington’s Luis Ceze have earned the 2020 Maurice Wilkes Award from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Architecture. (UW Photo)

University of Washington computer science professor Luis Ceze and Microsoft principal research manager Karin Strauss have won a prestigious award from the Association of Computing Machinery for their work on DNA-based data storage systems.

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Adaptive joins Microsoft to track virus-fighting cells

Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies and Microsoft have launched an open-access database called ImmuneCODE to catalog the many ways in which our immune systems fight off a coronavirus infection.

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Microsoft creates Plasma Bot to fight COVID-19

Antibodies in lab
Polyclonal hyperimmune globulin treatments, also known as H-Ig, are manufactured by pooling together multiple plasma donations to concentrate antibodies. (Takeda Photo)

Microsoft is teaming up with the world’s leading plasma companies to streamline the process of developing an antibody-based therapy for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

The Seattle-area software giant’s contribution takes the form of an app called the CoVIg-19 Plasma Bot, a self-screening tool that puts people who have recovered from COVID-19 in touch with plasma collection centers across the United States. The effort could lead to a new type of therapy for the disease, known as polyclonal hyperimmune globulin or H-Ig.

Blood plasma from survivors of other types of infectious disease is known to have a therapeutic effect, thanks to the antibodies that those survivors developed in the course of fighting off pathogens. Early indications suggest that convalescent plasma could have a beneficial effect for COVID-19 patients as well, and clinical trials are underway to confirm those results.

H-Ig takes the concept a step further by pooling multiple plasma donations, concentrating the antibodies and purifying the solution. The purification process minimizes the risk of contamination, and because the medicine is concentrated, it can be delivered in lower volumes and less time. H-Ig medications also have a longer shelf life than plasma, which allows for easier storage and shipping.

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Tech CEOs advise White House on virus impact

Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (Space Foundation / Microsoft Photos)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and President Donald Trump aren’t exactly the best of friends, but that didn’t stop the White House from including the world’s richest individual on a list of industry leaders working with Trump to bring about a “Great American Economic Revival.”

Bezos, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson are among the members of industry groups that were created this week to address the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, the White House said in an April 14 statement.

Nadella and Bezos are on the tech group, alongside the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Salesforce and other leading companies. Johnson is listed with a different group, focusing on the food and beverage industry.

There are more than 200 representatives in all on sector-specific teams, ranging from health care industry executives to sports executives and “thought leaders” including trickle-down economist Art Laffer.

“These bipartisan groups of American leaders will work together with the White House to chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity,” the White House said.

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Microsoft gives a boost to COVID-19 data analysis

Coronavirus data chart
Microsoft’s Power BI data visualization tool tracks statistics relating to the coronavirus epidemic. Click on the graphic for an interactive version. (Microsoft Graphic)

Microsoft says it’s immediately putting $20 million from its AI for Health program toward analytical tools that can help researchers and public health officials get a handle on the coronavirus pandemic.

John Kahan, Microsoft’s chief data analytics officer, said AI for Health “will collaborate with nonprofits, governments, and academic researchers on solutions, and bring our experience to the table, providing access to Microsoft AI, technical experts, data scientists and other resources.”

“We’re focusing our efforts in five specific areas where we think data, analysis and the skills of our data scientists can have the biggest impact,” Kahan wrote today in a blog post about the effort.

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How Microsoft’s bots are fighting the outbreak

Using a chatbot
The Coronavirus Self-Checker, created by Microsoft and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can be used at home to determine whether you should contact a health care provider. (Microsoft Photo)

To cope with the global coronavirus outbreak, Microsoft is bringing out the bots — and that’s just the beginning.

Software developers are also working on software tools to trace the people who came into contact with COVID-19 patients before they knew they were sick, to work through the molecular modeling for new vaccines and therapies, and to simulate how different responses change the course of an outbreak.

The pandemic calls for all the tools that tech companies can muster, said Desney Tan, who is managing director of Microsoft Healthcare as well as chief technologist at IntuitiveX, a Seattle-based life sciences consulting firm.

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Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz sees AI-human synergy

Eric Horvitz
Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, discusses trends in artificial intelligence during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Artificial intelligence is often portrayed as a rising competitor for human intelligence, in settings ranging from human-vs.-machine card games to the “Terminator” movie series. But according to Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, the hottest trends in AI have more to do with creating synergies between the humans and the machines.

Mastering human-AI collaboration is something “we don’t hear enough about in the open press,” Horvitz said Feb. 15 during a lecture at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

He ticked off several examples where humans and AI agents can create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

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