Changing the world with data science

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By Kenji Takeda, Director, Azure for Research

Alan Turing asked the question “can machines think?” in 1950 and it still intrigues us today. At The Alan Turing Institute, the United Kingdom’s national institute for data science in London, more than 150 researchers are pursuing this question by bringing their thinking to fundamental and real-world problems to push the boundaries of data science.

One year ago, The Turing first opened its doors to 37 PhD students, 117 Turing Fellows and visiting researchers, 6 research software engineers and more than 5,000 researchers for its workshops and events. I have been privileged to be one of these visiting fellows, helping the researchers take a cloud-first approach through our contribution of $5 million of Microsoft Azure cloud computing credits to The Turing. To be part of this world-leading center of data science research is exhilarating. Cloud computing is unlocking an impressive level of ambition at The Turing, allowing researchers to think bigger and unleash their creativity.


“We have had an exceptional first year of research at The Turing. Working with Microsoft, our growing community of researchers have been tooled up with skills and access to Azure for cloud computing and as a result they’ve been able to undertake complex data science tasks at speed and with maximum efficiency, as illustrated by some of the stories of Turing research showcased today. We look forward to growing our engagement with the Azure platform to help us to undertake even bigger and more ambitious research over the coming academic year.”
~ Andrew Blake, Research Director, The Alan Turing Institute

Human society is one of the most complex systems on the planet and measuring aspects of it has been extremely difficult until now. Merve Alanyali and Chanuki Seresinhe are graduate students from the University of Warwick who are spending a year at The Turing applying novel computational social science techniques to understand human happiness and frustration. They are using AI and deep neural networks to analyze millions of online photos with Microsoft Azure and their findings are providing deeper insights into the human condition.

Kenneth Heafield, Turing Fellow from the University of Edinburgh, has been using thousands of Azure GPUs (graphical processing units) to explore and optimize neural machine translation systems for multiple languages in the Conference on Machine Translation. Azure GPUs enabled the group to participate in more languages, producing substantially better results than last year and winning first place in some language pairs. The team is working closely with Intel on using new architectures, including FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) like Microsoft’s Project Catapult, to make even bigger gains in machine translation.

Microsoft is delighted to see The Alan Turing Institute setting up a deep research program around ethics, a crucial topic in data science, AI and machine learning. Our own human-centered design principles are that AI technology should be transparent, secure, inclusive and respectful, and also maintain the highest degree of privacy protection. We are pleased that Luciano Floridi is leading the Data Ethics research group at The Turing as his perspectives on areas such as healthcare are helping us to think about how we can ensure that technology is used in the most constructive ways.

The first-year at The Turing has been impressive. We look forward to another exciting year as we work together on projects in data-centric engineering, blockchain, healthcare and secure cloud computing. Along with Microsoft’s data science collaborations at University of California, Berkeley, and through the National Science Foundation Big Data Innovation Hubs, we are perhaps getting closer to answering Alan Turing’s profound question from 67 years ago.

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