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June 25, 2019
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MS Build 2019

Non-invasive glucose monitor EasyGlucose takes home Microsoft’s Imagine Cup and $100K

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Microsoft’s yearly Imagine Cup student startup competition crowned its latest winner today: EasyGlucose, a non-invasive, smartphone-based method for diabetics to test their blood glucose. It and the two other similarly beneficial finalists presented today at Microsoft’s Build developers conference.

The Imagine Cup brings together winners of many local student competitions around the world with a focus on social good and, of course, Microsoft services like Azure. Last year’s winner was a smart prosthetic forearm that uses a camera in the palm to identify the object it is meant to grasp. (They were on hand today as well, with an improved prototype.)

The three finalists hailed from the U.K., India, and the U.S.; EasyGlucose was a one-person team from my alma mater UCLA.

EasyGlucose takes advantage of machine learning’s knack for spotting the signal in noisy data, in this case the tiny details of the eye’s iris. It turns out, as creator Brian Chiang explained in his presentation, that the iris’s “ridges, crypts, and furrows” hide tiny hints as to their owner’s blood glucose levels.

EasyGlucose presents at the Imagine Cup finals.

These features aren’t the kind of thing you can see with the naked eye (or rather, on the naked eye), but by clipping a macro lens onto a smartphone camera Chiang was able to get a clear enough image that his computer vision algorithms were able to analyze them.

The resulting blood glucose measurement is significantly better than any non-invasive measure and more than good enough to serve in place of the most common method used by diabetics: stabbing themselves with a needle every couple hours. Currently EasyGlucose gets within 7 percent of the pinprick method, well above what’s needed for “clinical accuracy,” and Chiang is working on closing that gap. No doubt this innovation will be welcomed warmly by the community, as well as the low cost: $10 for the lens adapter, and $20 per month for continued support via the app.

It’s not a home run, or not just yet: Naturally, a technology like this can’t go straight from the lab (or in this case the dorm) to global deployment. It needs FDA approval first, though it likely won’t have as protracted a review period as, say, a new cancer treatment or surgical device. In the meantime, EasyGlucose has a patent pending, so no one can eat its lunch while it navigates the red tape.

As the winner, Chiang gets $100,000, plus $50,000 in Azure credit, plus the coveted one-on-one mentoring session with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

The other two Imagine Cup finalists also used computer vision (among other things) in service of social good.

Caeli is taking on the issue of air pollution by producing custom high-performance air filter masks intended for people with chronic respiratory conditions who have to live in polluted areas. This is a serious problem in many places that cheap or off-the-shelf filters can’t really solve.

It uses your phone’s front-facing camera to scan your face and pick the mask shape that makes the best seal against your face. What’s the point of a high-tech filter if the unwanted particles just creep in the sides?

Part of the mask is a custom-designed compact nebulizer for anyone who needs medication delivered in mist form, for example someone with asthma. The medicine is delivered automatically according to the dosage and schedule set in the app — which also tracks pollution levels in the area so the user can avoid hot zones.

Finderr is an interesting solution to the problem of visually impaired people being unable to find items they’ve left around their home. By using a custom camera and computer vision algorithm, the service watches the home and tracks the placement of everyday items: keys, bags, groceries, and so on. Just don’t lose your phone, since you’ll need that to find the other stuff.

You call up the app and tell it (by speaking) what you’re looking for, then the phone’s camera it determines your location relative to the item you’re looking for, giving you audio feedback that guides you to it in a sort of “getting warmer” style, and a big visual indicator for those who can see it.

After their presentations, I asked the creators a few questions about upcoming challenges, since as is usual in the Imagine Cup, these companies are extremely early stage.

Right now EasyGlucose is working well but Chiang emphasized that the model still needs lots more data and testing across multiple demographics. It’s trained on 15,000 eye images but many more will be necessary to get the kind of data they’ll need to present to the FDA.

Finderrr recognizes all the images in the widely used ImageNet database, but the team’s Ferdinand Loesch pointed out that others can be added very easily with 100 images to train with. As for the upfront cost, the U.K. offers a 500-pound grant to visually-impaired people for this sort of thing, and they engineered the 360-degree ceiling-mounted camera to minimize the number needed to cover the home.

Caeli noted that the nebulizer, which really is a medical device in its own right, is capable of being sold and promoted on its own, perhaps licensed to medical device manufacturers. There are other smart masks coming out, but he had a pretty low opinion of them (not strange in a competitor but there isn’t some big market leader they need to dethrone). He also pointed out that in the target market of India (from which they plan to expand later) isn’t as difficult to get insurance to cover this kind of thing.

While these are early-stage companies, they aren’t hobbies — though admittedly many of their founders are working on them between classes. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more about them and others from Imagine Cup pulling in funding and hiring in the next year.

Microsoft aims to modernize and secure voting with ElectionGuard

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When it comes to voting, we’ve come a long way from dropping pebbles into an amphora, but still not nearly far enough, if the lack of confidence in our election systems is any indication. Microsoft is the first major tech company to take on this problem with a new platform it calls ElectionGuard that promises to make elections more secure and transparent — and yes, it’s free and open source.

Set to be made available this summer and piloted during the 2020 elections, ElectionGuard is not a complete voting machine, but rather a platform for handling voting data that can either empower existing systems or have new ones built on top of it. It’s part of the Defending Democracy Program and sister product to the similarly-named NewsGuard and AccountGuard, which appeared last year.

The basic idea is to let voters track their votes securely and privately, while also allowing authorities to tabulate, store, and if necessary audit them. As Microsoft puts it:

ElectionGuard provides a complete implementation of end-to-end verifiable elections. It is designed to
work with systems that use paper ballots, supplementing today’s tabulation process by providing a
means of public verification of the accuracy of reported results.

The platform would sit underneath existing voting systems, and when a voter casts their ballot, the data would be entered in the ordinary fashion in a state’s election systems but also in ElectionGuard. The voter would then be given a tracking code that lets them see that their vote has been, say, recorded locally at the correct polling place, or perhaps that it has been sent on to state authorities for auditing.

Meanwhile the ElectionGuard databases are securely recording all votes and tabulating them, a process that would happen in parallel with existing tabulation processes. In the case of an audit, random ballots could be selected from the database and compared with paper ballots, providing a quick way to see if, for example, a machine error in one district was throwing off results.

Importantly, this is all accomplished without Microsoft, or whoever is actually administrating the ElectionGuard system, knowing how any individual voted. This is done, the company explained, via a cryptographic technique known as homomorphic encryption. Basically it allows a system to perform mathematical operations on encrypted data without decrypting it, making interference or exfiltration of that sensitive data next to impossible.

In this case every vote is trackable only by the individual who made it, but the system is limited to adding up encrypted votes and reporting those sums.

Ultimately ElectionGuard aims to be a full voting solution, but one that can be customized and run on any number of actual devices — just like the rest of Microsoft’s software.

When it’s time to vote, ElectionGuard supports the use of standard tablets and PCs running a variety of operating systems as a ballot marking device, which can be used to create an interface that looks and feels like modern applications people interact with every day on their phones and tablets.

Here’s hoping ease of deployment and a modern code base will end for good the reign of aged and insecure voting machines that can be hacked with a USB key. Microsoft is also working with election tech suppliers to bring ElectionGuard into existing product lines or build new ones.

The company worked together with Galois to develop ElectionGuard, a company that has been working on election security for years and recently received a $10 million grant from DARPA to pursue secure voting hardware.

It will no doubt take some tinkering, but it’s good to see a major tech company making a credible and comprehensive bid to fix an elections process that is technologically compromised on multiple fronts. Tech can’t fix politics, but it can sure build a better way to vote.

Word’s new AI editor will improve your writing

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If you write in Microsoft Word Online, you’ll soon have an AI-powered editor at your side. As the company announced today, Word will soon get a new feature called “Ideas” that will offer writers all kinds of help with their documents.

If writing is a struggle for you, the most important feature of Ideas is surely its ability to help you write more concise and readable text. You can think of this as a grammar checker on steroids, as it goes beyond fixing obvious mistakes and focuses on making your writing better. It uses machine learning, for example, to suggest a rewrite when you mangled a complex phrase. Ideas will also help you write more inclusive texts.

The cloud-based tool will also give you information about the estimated reading times and decode acronyms for you, based on data it has about your company in the Microsoft Graph.

Ideas can also automatically extract key points from a document. That’s probably more interesting to a reader than a writer, though, so I expect that’s something users will use when somebody sends them a 67-page news summary.

Microsoft also notes that Ideas will bring something called the “Word Designer” to the word processor, which will help you style different parts of a document, including tables.

These new features will come to Office Insiders in June and will become generally available to all users in the fall.

Microsoft launches Visual Studio Online, an online code editor

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Microsoft today announced the private preview launch of Visual Studio Online, an online code editor the company is positioning as a companion to Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code.

The service is based on the Visual Studio Code, Microsoft’s popular free and open-source desktop code editor. This means Visual Studio Online will also support all the extensions that are currently available for Visual Studio Code, as well as popular features like Visual Studio Code workspaces. Support for IntelliCode, Microsoft’s tool for AI-assisted development that became generally available today, is also built-in.

The emphasis here is on Visual Studio Online being a ‘companion.’ It’s not meant to become a developer’s default environment but instead as a way to make a quick edit, review a pull request or join a Live Share session.

And if you think the name Visual Studio Online sounds familiar, that’s because Microsoft is actually recycling this name. Not that long ago, Visual Studio Code was Microsoft’s hub for all things DevOps, before DevOps was a buzzword. Last year, the company renamed it to Azure DevOps, leaving the name open for other uses. Frankly, given the name, a lot of people probably always assumed that Visual Studio Online was a web-based version of the integrated development environment, only to be then disappointed that it wasn’t.

It’s worth noting that if you don’t want to wait for Microsoft to open the private preview to more users, there are also startups like Coder, which can provide you with a remote Visual Studio Code environment.

Microsoft open-sources its quantum computing development tools

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Microsoft’s quantum computer may not have a working qubit yet, but the company has been hard at work on building the tools to program future quantum computers. Over the course of the last few years, the company announced both Q#, a programming language for writing quantum code and a compiler for this language, as well as a quantum simulator. Today, Microsoft announced that it will open source these efforts in the coming months.

This move, the company says, is meant to make “quantum computing and algorithm development easier and more transparent for developers.” In addition, it will also make it easier for academic institutions to use these tools and developers, of course, will be able to contribute their own code and ideas.

Unsurprisingly, the code will live on Microsoft’s GitHub page. Previously, the team had already open-sourced a number of tools and examples, as well as a library of quantum chemistry samples, but this is the first time the team is open-sourcing core parts of the platform.

“Our approach to solving intractable industry problems requires new types of scalable software tools, and the Quantum Development Kit offers that and supports us in every step our development process,” said Andrew Fursman, co-founder and CEO of 1QBit, in today’s announcement. “We’re excited to contribute two important code samples to accelerate advanced materials and quantum chemistry research, including one focusing on Variational-Quantum-Eigensolver (VQE) and another which demonstrates density matrix embedding theory (DMET) running on our platform, QEMIST.”

It’s not the first company to do so, though. IBM, for example, offers Qiskit, an open-source framework for building quantum computing programs, including the Aer simulator.  Rigetti Computing, too, has open sourced many of its tool.

Only about a month ago, Microsoft also announced that the Development Kit has been downloaded over 100,000 times. At the time, it also brought support for Q# programming to Jupyter notebooks.

While all these software efforts are laudable, though, Microsoft’s quantum hardware efforts have yet to pay off. The company is taking a novel approach to quantum computing, which may yet give it a lead over its competitors in the long run. In the short term, though, some of its competitors are already making real, physical — but limited — quantum computers available to developers.

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