Microsoft’s $25 million ‘A.I. for Accessibility’ seeks to amplify humanity

Microsoft kicked off its annual developer conference, Build 2018, on Monday, May 7, with the announcement of a new program designed to invest in accessibility technologies built using artificial intelligence and machine learning. The program has a $25 million endowment and a five-year mission to invest in potentially life-changing technologies.

“As part of Microsoft’s commitment to trusted, responsible A.I. products and practices, the company also today announced A.I. for Accessibility, a new $25 million, five-year program aimed at harnessing the power of A.I. to amplify human capabilities for more than 1 billion people around the world with disabilities,” Microsoft announced.

We don’t know exactly what that investment will look like — Microsoft hasn’t named particular beneficiaries, but claims the $25 million investment will be split into a number of grants and other investments over its five-year shelf life.

“The program comprises grants, technology investments, and expertise, and will also incorporate A.I. for Accessibility innovations into Microsoft cloud services. It builds on the success of the similar A.I. for Earth initiative,” Microsoft continued.

It’s not the first time Microsoft has earmarked a fund for this kind of investment in A.I. applications. As Microsoft mentioned, its A.I. for Earth initiative — a sustainability-centered slate of grants and investments — rolled out late last year.

“We are broadening our A.I. for Earth program with an expanded strategic plan and committing $50 million over the next five years to put artificial intelligence technology in the hands of individuals and organizations around the world who are working to protect our planet,” Microsoft president Brad Smith said.

Both initiatives are part of Microsoft’s plan to democratize artificial intelligence by putting it in as many hands as possible, funding projects with the potential to improve real-world outcomes, technologies with tangible benefits. In the case of the A.I. for Earth program, Microsoft set aside $50 million for programs that combat climate change either directly or by gathering data necessary to accurately observe environmental systems.

“We’ll do this in three ways. First, we’ll expand seed grants around the world to create and test new A.I. applications,” Smith continued, describing A.I. for Earth’s three-part plan.

“Next, as these projects and our work in this area matures, we will identify the projects that show the most promise and make larger investments to help bring them to scale. Finally, as these projects advance, we’ll identify and pursue opportunities to incorporate new A.I. advances into platform-level services so that others can use them for their own sustainability initiatives.”

Microsoft’s A.I. for Accessibility program will likely follow a similar trajectory, investing in A.I. applications that directly improve existing accessibility technologies, with a substantial amount of that funding aimed toward improving long-term outcomes.

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