May 23, 2019
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Microsoft open-sources a crucial algorithm behind its Bing Search services

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Microsoft today announced that it has open-sourced a key piece of what makes its Bing search services able to quickly return search results to its users. By making this technology open, the company hopes that developers will be able to build similar experiences for their users in other domains where users search through vast data troves, including in retail, though in this age of abundant data, chances are developers will find plenty of other enterprise and consumer use cases, too.

The piece of software the company open-sourced today is a library Microsoft developed to make better use of all the data it collected and AI models it built for Bing .

“Only a few years ago, web search was simple. Users typed a few words and waded through pages of results,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “Today, those same users may instead snap a picture on a phone and drop it into a search box or use an intelligent assistant to ask a question without physically touching a device at all. They may also type a question and expect an actual reply, not a list of pages with likely answers.”

With the Space Partition Tree and Graph (SPTAG) algorithm that is at the core of the open-sourced Python library, Microsoft is able to search through billions of pieces of information in milliseconds.

Vector search itself isn’t a new idea, of course. What Microsoft has done, though, is apply this concept to working with deep learning models. First, the team takes a pre-trained model and encodes that data into vectors, where every vector represents a word or pixel. Using the new SPTAG library, it then generates a vector index. As queries come in, the deep learning model translates that text or image into a vector and the library finds the most related vectors in that index.

“With Bing search, the vectorizing effort has extended to over 150 billion pieces of data indexed by the search engine to bring improvement over traditional keyword matching,” Microsoft says. “These include single words, characters, web page snippets, full queries and other media. Once a user searches, Bing can scan the indexed vectors and deliver the best match.”

The library is now available under the MIT license and provides all of the tools to build and search these distributed vector indexes. You can find more details about how to get started with using this library — as well as application samples — here.

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Put Alexa and a JBL speaker in your ceiling with this clever LED downlight

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This light makes the smart home even more accessible. Installed as any other ceiling downlight, the June AI downlight features Amazon Alexa through integrated JBL speakers. There’s a light in there, too.

The idea is great: make the smart home invisible. Instead of having an Amazon Echo sitting on a table, this device sits in a person’s ceiling doing the job of a normal light. But when called upon, it can play music, control devices or anything else possible with an Echo.

“This integration of technologies easily and affordably converts any house into a functional, seamless smart home,” says Jeff Spencer, Acuity Brands Lighting vice president and general manager, Residential, in a released statement. “Being located in the ceiling creates a unique advantage enabling Juno AI to deliver not only intelligence through simple voice commands, but also exceptional lighting and sound.”

Devices like this will continue to appear as Amazon and Google expand their reach by working with more developers and hardware makers. At this point, both companies are seemingly more interested in licensing their services than selling their own devices.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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Apple switches from Bing to Google for Siri web search results on iOS and Spotlight on Mac

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Apple is switching the default provider of its web searches from Siri, Search inside iOS (formerly called Spotlight) and Spotlight in Safari on the Mac. So, for instance, if Siri falls back to a web search on iOS when you ask it a question, you’re now going to get Google results instead of Bing.

Consistency is Apple’s main motivation given for switching the results from Microsoft’s Bing to Google in these cases. Safari on Mac and iOS already currently use Google search as the default provider, thanks to a deal worth billions to Google over the last decade. This change will now mirror those results when Siri, the iOS Search bar or Spotlight is used.

“Switching to Google as the web search provider for Siri, Search within iOS and Spotlight on Mac will allow these services to have a consistent web search experience with the default in Safari,” reads an Apple statement sent this morning. “We have strong relationships with Google and Microsoft and remain committed to delivering the best user experience possible.”

This will change on iOS for the ‘I don’t know what you’re asking but here are web results’ Siri behavior as well as intentional ‘hey, Siri, search the web for…’ queries.

The search results include regular ‘web links’ as well as video results. Web image results from Siri, swiping down and searching within iOS and Spotlight will still come from Bing, for now. Bing has had more than solid image results for some time now so that makes some sense. If you use Siri to search your own photos, it will, of course, use your own library instead. Interestingly, video results will come directly from YouTube.

All of the search results that you see in these different cases will come directly from the search API, which means you’ll be getting the raw, ranked search results that start below all of the ads and Knowledge Graph stuff that appears on a regular Google home page. Worth noting, of course, that once you’ve clicked on a YouTube video, you’re still going to get served ads, so there is a revenue driver here for Google, even if it’s not direct.

The timing of this rollout is interesting, coming after iOS has been released, but makes some sense given that High Sierra is releasing today. Mixing data providers like this is not unprecedented. Maps uses dozens of data providers including Yelp, Foursquare, Garmin and Tripadvisor for different locales and data types.

But, of course, this change has an additional dimension of interest given the years-long saga of Google being default on Apple devices including the iPhone. Google has famously made a bunch of money from iOS because of default search and because its apps and services are popular. At times those figures appeared to even exceed the amount of money that Google had made from Android.

One question that I do not have the answer to is whether this change comes completely from Apple wanting consistent results or whether it is a condition of the ~$3B deal that Google has in place to remain the default search provider on Apple devices. Perhaps a blend of the two.

The changes began rolling out at 9am PT and should roll out to the entire world by this afternoon.

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Bing now means business

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Unless you’re a regular Bing user, chances are you haven’t thought about Microsoft’s search engine all that much in recent years. While Microsoft has kept adding features to the service over time, its market share has remained pretty stable. At Microsoft’s Ignite enterprise conference in Orlando, Florida, however, Bing took center stage for a little while because the company today launched the private preview of Bing for Business, as well as a few new tools for developers.

The idea behind Bing for Business, which is now in private preview, is to integrate data from the Microsoft Graph (that is all of your social graph inside your company, as well as your documents, emails and other data) to give you more personalized and contextual search results on Bing. Microsoft communications chief Frank X. Shaw explains that Bing for Business uses AI and the Microsoft Graph to “deliver more relevant search results in the Bing search page with a browser on any device based on your organizational context.”

This means that when one of your colleagues has a very common name, Bing will prioritize search results about your colleague over those of others with the same name. Microsoft has been using this internally over the past year or so and Shaw described it as “insanely useful.”

In addition to this, Microsoft is expanding the Bing developer APIs (which are part of the Microsoft Cognitive Services set of machine learning-based APIs) with a new custom search feature that lets developers create a customized search experience for a specific slice of the web, and an updates Bing Search API that promises to introduce more relevant search results and support for autosuggest and spellcheck.

The private preview of Bing for Business is now live and Microsoft plans to open these tools up to more businesses over time.

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Featured Image: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

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