Microsoft spins out 5-year-old Chinese chatbot Xiaoice

Microsoft is shedding its empathetic chatbot Xiaoice into an independent entity, the U.S. software behemoth said (in Chinese) Monday, confirming an earlier report by the Chinese news site Chuhaipost in June.

The announcement came several months after Microsoft announced it would close down its voice assistant Cortana in China among other countries late last year.

Xiaoice has over the years enlisted some of the best minds in artificial intelligence and ventured beyond China into countries like Japan and Indonesia. Microsoft said it called the shots to accelerate Xiaoice’s “localized innovation” and buildout of the chatbot’s “commercial ecosystem.”

The spinoff will see the new entity license technologies from Microsoft for subsequent research and development in Xiaoice and continue to use the Xiaoice brand (and Rinna in Japanese), while Microsoft will retain its stakes in the new company.

In 2014, a small team of Microsoft’s Bing researchers unveiled Xiaoice, which means “Little Bing” in Chinese. The bot immediately created a sensation in China and was regarded by many as their virtual girlfriend. The chatbot came just a few weeks after Microsoft rolled out Cortana in the country. Modeled on the personality of a teenage girl, Xiaoice aims to add a more human and social element to chatbots. In Microsoft’s own words, she wants to be a user’s friend.

Like all foreign companies, Microsoft has to grapple with China’s censorship. In 2017, Xiaoice was removed by Tencent’s instant messenger QQ over suspicions of politically sensitive speech.

The project has involved some of the most prestigious scientists in the AI land, ranging from Lu Qi, who went on to join Baidu as its chief operating officer and brought Y Combinator to China; Jing Kun, who took up a post at Baidu to head the search giant’s smart devices; and Harry Shum, a former executive at Microsoft’s storied Artificial Intelligence and Research unit and now sits on the board of fledgling news app News Break.

Shum will serve as chairman at Xiaoice’s new standalone entity. Li Di, general manager of Xiaoice, will serve as chief executive officer. Chen Zhan, a developer of the Japanese chatbot Rinna, will be general manager of the Japanese office.

The new company will retain the right to use the “Xiaoice” and “Rinna” brands, with a mission to further develop its client base across the Greater China region, Japan and Indonesia.

Microsoft claimed that Xiaoice has a reach of 660 million users and 450 million third-party smart devices globally at the last count. The chatbot has found applications in such areas as finance, retail, auto, real estate and fashion, in which it claimed it can “mine context, tonality and emotions from text to create unique patterns within seconds.”

Microsoft makes Teams video meetings less tiring with its new Together mode

Video meetings. While the move to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic may have made them mainstream, they are not without issues and more and more people are now opting out. And for good reason. As it turns out, it’s really hard for our brains to sustain concentration while we’re trying to focus on 20 people in neat squares, all with different backgrounds and never quite looking at the camera. While we’ve had quite a bit of anecdotal evidence for this, Microsoft today released some of the research it did in this area, as well as new features in Teams that it hopes will make video meetings easier and less tiring.

The first of these is Together mode. The idea here is actually pretty simple. To be able to change backgrounds or add background blur, Teams already features Microsoft’s AI segmentation technology to detect and cut out a participant’s image from the background. Now, with Together Mode, it is taking everybody’s images and putting them into a shared space, starting with an auditorium. So instead of lots of little squares, all of the meeting participants now sit in this auditorium. This, Microsoft’s research shows, is actually quite a bit easier on the brain to process than standard remote collaboration tools.

“In our preliminary research — and it’s only been preliminary thus far, this has only been around for a couple of months — we’ve noticed quite a few things,” Microsoft’s Melissa Salazar explained to me ahead of today’s announcement. “First and foremost, you’ll notice the way that we’re looking at each other is obviously very different than something we’re used to, not only are we out of the grid, but we’re looking at this, ‘mirror image’ of ourselves.” This view of ourselves, Microsoft argues, is something we’re quite used to from being at the barbershop, for example, where we talk to the mirror. This also tricks our brain into mitigating some of the eye contact problems we’ve all experienced in video meetings.

“Our research has also shown that people tend to be happier, be more engaged in meetings, feel more comfortable keeping their camera on longer — even if they’re not asked to in this mode. And then — I think most importantly — be able to pick up on the behavioral social cues that are so important to human interaction,” said Salazar.

Michael Bohan, a director in Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group, noted that just removing the grid view already makes a major difference here. “When you have a grid view, everybody’s boxed off and so your brain has to treat those as individual parts — it has to parse all information. When you remove those edges, then your brain can start to see a more unified view of things.”

For now, Together Mode only features the auditorium view, which can handle up to 49 participants, but Microsoft is already working on other views, including a more intimate coffee shop mode.

The other new mode Microsoft is introducing is Dynamic view. The idea here is that Together Mode is obviously not perfect for every kind of meeting, so this view provides more control over how you see shared content and the other participants in a meeting, including the ability to see content and specific participants side-by-side.

Also new in this update are video filters, to tweak your lighting levels, for example, and soon, Teams will add live reactions, which let you share your sentiment with emojis without interrupting the meeting. Coming soon, too, are PowerPoint Live Presentations to Teams, chat bubbles so you don’t have to keep a separate chat view open, and speaker attribution and translation for live captions and transcripts. For chats in teams, Microsoft is introducing Gmail-like suggested replies.

But there is more. Teams will soon let you bring the whole company together, with meetings that can support up to 1,000 participants. And for presentations, Teams will support up to 20,000 participants.

And since Cortana still lives, she is also now coming to the Teams mobile app to help you make calls, join meetings and more.

Microsoft also today re-introduced its dedicated Team Displays which it first announced at CES.

Another new feature Microsoft CVP Jared Spataro stressed when I talked to him ahead of today’s announcement was the new Reflect messaging extension. “This allows you to have a manager check in on the wellbeing of your team,” he explained. “You can do that anonymously or publicly. We’ve already been doing some of that on my team — just trying to check in with people — and this gives you a more structured way to do that. I think it’ll be really well received based on what I’m talking about with customers because this well-being  component is becoming very important.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft secretly seized domains used in COVID-19-themed email cyberattacks

A court has granted a bid by Microsoft to seize and take control of malicious web domains used in a large-scale cyberattack targeting victims in 62 countries with spoofed emails in an effort to defraud unsuspecting businesses.

The technology giant announced the takedown of the business email compromise operation in a Tuesday blog post.

Tom Burt, Microsoft’s consumer security chief, said the attackers tried to gain access to victims’ email inboxes, contacts and other sensitive files in order to send emails to businesses that look like they came from a trusted source. The end goal of the attack is to steal information or redirect wire transfers.

Last year, the FBI said businesses lost more than $1.7 billion as a result of business email compromise attacks.

Microsoft said it first detected and scuppered the operation in December, but that the attackers returned, using the COVID-19 pandemic as a fresh lure to open malicious emails. In one week alone, the attackers sent malicious emails to millions of users, Microsoft said.

Last month, the company secretly sought legal action by asking a federal court to allow it to take control and “sinkhole” the attacker’s domains, effectively shutting down the operation. The court granted Microsoft’s request shortly after but under seal, preventing the attackers from learning of the imminent shutdown of their operation.

Details of the case were unsealed Monday after Microsoft secured control of the domains.

It shows a growing trend of using the U.S. courts system to shut down cyberattacks when time is of the essence, without having to involve the federal authorities, a process that’s frequently cumbersome, bureaucratic, and seldom quick.

“This unique civil case against COVID-19-themed [business email compromise] attacks has allowed us to proactively disable key domains that are part of the criminals’ malicious infrastructure, which is a critical step in protecting our customers,” said Burt.

Microsoft declined to say who, or if it knew, who was behind the attack but a spokesperson confirmed it was not a nation state-backed operation.

The attack worked by tricking victims into turning over access to their email accounts. Court filings seen by TechCrunch describe how the attackers used “phishing emails are designed to look like they come from an employer or other trusted source,” while designed to look like they are legitimate emails from Microsoft.

The malicious web app that steals victims’ account access tokens. (Image: Microsoft)

Once clicked, the phishing email opens a legitimate Microsoft login page. But once the victim enters their username and password, the victim is redirected to a malicious web app that was built and controlled by the attackers. If the user is tricked into approving the web app access to their accounts, the web app siphons off and sends the victim’s account access tokens to the attackers. Account access tokens are designed to keep users logged in without having to re-enter their passwords, but if stolen and abused, can grant full access to a victim’s account.

Burt said the malicious operation allowed the attackers to trick victims into giving over access to their accounts “without explicitly” requiring the victim to turn over their username and password, “as they would in a more traditional phishing campaign.”

With access to those accounts, the attackers would have full control of the accounts to send spoofed messages designed to trick companies into turning over sensitive information or carry out fraud, a common tactic for financially-driven attackers.

By taking out the attackers’ domains used in the attack, Burt said the civil case against the attackers let the company “to proactively disable key domains that are part of the criminals’ malicious infrastructure.”

It’s not the first time Microsoft has asked a court to grant it ownership of malicious domains. In the past two years, Microsoft took control of domains belonging to hackers backed by both Russia and Iran.

Magic Leap has a new chief executive and it’s former Microsoft exec Peggy Johnson

Peggy Johnson, the former executive vice president of business development at Microsoft, has been named as the new chief executive of Magic Leap, the company said in a statement.

Johnson, who will begin her new role on August 1, 2020, comes to Magic Leap after a thirty year career in the technology industry.

It’s been a tumultuous 2020 for Magic Leap. Struggling to survive amid a cash crunch and facing bankruptcy, the company laid off most of its staff in April and was casting around for a white knight investor to come in and keep the company afloat. While the Paradise, Fla.-based company found the $375 million in funding it needed, according to The New York Times, that investment came at the price of Rony Abovitz’s position as chief executive.

Abovitz, whose vision for the future of spatial computing managed to rake in over a billion dollars in funding, was a consummate hype man whose products failed to deliver on the promise they’d held.

In Johnson Magic Leap has a proven executive who joined Microsoft in 2014 from Qualcomm as an executive hire made by chief executive Satya Nadella. There, she ran business development and had a hand in a number of the company’s major acquisitions and partnerships including the $26.2 billion blockbuster acquisition of LinkedIn . The 58 year-old Johnson also launched Microsoft’s venture capital fund (known as M12).

At Magic Leap, Johnson will take the reins of a company whose direction has shifted to focus more on businesses than on consumers — a strategy that mirrors approaches taken both by Microsoft’s Hololens extended reality product and by early wearable tech progenitor Google Glass.

It’s also a company that managed to burn through nearly $3.5 billion under Abovitz’s stewardship and lose a valuation of

“Since its founding in 2011, Magic Leap has pioneered the field of spatial computing, and I have long admired the relentless efforts and accomplishments of this exceptional team. Magic Leap’s technological foundation is undeniable, and there is no question that has the potential to shape the future of XR and computing,” said Ms. Johnson.

Before joining Microsoft, Ms. Johnson spent 24 years at Qualcomm, where she held various leadership positions, and served as a member of Qualcomm’s Executive Committee.

“As a company that has been a leader in transforming what will become the next era of computing, we have been fortunate to have a number of extremely qualified candidates express interest in the position of CEO. However, as soon as Peggy raised her hand there was no question in my mind, or the Board’s, that she was absolutely the best person to lead this company into the future,” said Abovitz in a statement. “As Magic Leap drives towards commercializing spatial computing for enterprise, I can’t think of a better and more capable leader than Peggy Johnson to carry our mission forward.”

 

R&D Roundup: Tech giants unveil breakthroughs at computer vision summit

Computer vision summit CVPR has just (virtually) taken place, and like other CV-focused conferences, there are quite a few interesting papers. More than I could possibly write up individually, in fact, so I’ve collected the most promising ones from major companies here.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all shared papers at the conference — and others too, I’m sure — but I’m sticking to the big hitters for this column. (If you’re interested in the papers deemed most meritorious by attendees and judges, the nominees and awards are listed here.)

Microsoft

Redmond has the most interesting papers this year, in my opinion, because they cover several nonobvious real-life needs.

One is documenting that shoebox we or perhaps our parents filled with old 3x5s and other film photos. Of course there are services that help with this already, but if photos are creased, torn, or otherwise damaged, you generally just get a high-resolution scan of that damage. Microsoft has created a system to automatically repair such photos, and the results look mighty good.

Image Credits: Google

The problem is as much identifying the types of degradation a photo suffers from as it is fixing them. The solution is simple, write the authors: “We propose a novel triplet domain translation network by leveraging real photos along with massive synthetic image pairs.” Amazing no one tried it before!

R&D Roundup: Tech giants unveil breakthroughs at computer vision summit

Computer vision summit CVPR has just (virtually) taken place, and like other CV-focused conferences, there are quite a few interesting papers. More than I could possibly write up individually, in fact, so I’ve collected the most promising ones from major companies here.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all shared papers at the conference — and others too, I’m sure — but I’m sticking to the big hitters for this column. (If you’re interested in the papers deemed most meritorious by attendees and judges, the nominees and awards are listed here.)

Microsoft

Redmond has the most interesting papers this year, in my opinion, because they cover several nonobvious real-life needs.

One is documenting that shoebox we or perhaps our parents filled with old 3x5s and other film photos. Of course there are services that help with this already, but if photos are creased, torn, or otherwise damaged, you generally just get a high-resolution scan of that damage. Microsoft has created a system to automatically repair such photos, and the results look mighty good.

Image Credits: Google

The problem is as much identifying the types of degradation a photo suffers from as it is fixing them. The solution is simple, write the authors: “We propose a novel triplet domain translation network by leveraging real photos along with massive synthetic image pairs.” Amazing no one tried it before!

Nearly all of Microsoft’s retail stores will close for good

As other retailers begin the slow, cautious move to reopen, Microsoft has announced that will be permanently shutting down the vast majority of its retail stores. There are some exceptions, including flagships in urban hubs including London, New York City, Sydney and its own campus in Redmond, Washington, but the remainder of the locations are going away.

In a post optimistically titled, “Microsoft Store announces new approach to retail,” the company spells out what amounts to a profound shift in an approach to retail that had previously found the company looking to compete with Apple at its own brick and mortar game.

It notes the planned temporary shutdown of locations due to COVID-19, but while the pandemic no doubt had an impact on that sector, this was likely a long time coming. In June of late year, it closed its smaller Specialty Stores and kiosks in the U.S.

“Our sales have grown online as our product portfolio has evolved to largely digital offerings, and our talented team has proven success serving customers beyond any physical location,” said Corporate VP David Porter says in the post.

Some goodish news in all of this. Microsoft has committed to transitioning retail employees to new sales and other roles, as the company shifts resources back into online commerce.

“The company’s retail team members will continue to serve customers from Microsoft corporate facilities and remotely providing sales, training, and support,” it writes. “Microsoft will continue to invest in its digital storefronts on Microsoft.com, and stores in Xbox and Windows, reaching more than 1.2 billion people every month in 190 markets.”

Nearly all of Microsoft’s retail stores will close for good

As other retailers begin the slow, cautious move to reopen, Microsoft has announced that will be permanently shutting down the vast majority of its retail stores. There are some exceptions, including flagships in urban hubs including London, New York City, Sydney and its own campus in Redmond, Washington, but the remainder of the locations are going away.

In a post optimistically titled, “Microsoft Store announces new approach to retail,” the company spells out what amounts to a profound shift in an approach to retail that had previously found the company looking to compete with Apple at its own brick and mortar game.

It notes the planned temporary shutdown of locations due to COVID-19, but while the pandemic no doubt had an impact on that sector, this was likely a long time coming. In June of late year, it closed its smaller Specialty Stores and kiosks in the U.S.

“Our sales have grown online as our product portfolio has evolved to largely digital offerings, and our talented team has proven success serving customers beyond any physical location,” said Corporate VP David Porter says in the post.

Some goodish news in all of this. Microsoft has committed to transitioning retail employees to new sales and other roles, as the company shifts resources back into online commerce.

“The company’s retail team members will continue to serve customers from Microsoft corporate facilities and remotely providing sales, training, and support,” it writes. “Microsoft will continue to invest in its digital storefronts on Microsoft.com, and stores in Xbox and Windows, reaching more than 1.2 billion people every month in 190 markets.”

Daily Crunch: Microsoft acquires CyberX

Microsoft acquires a security startup, Canva raises $60 million and Apple kicks off a virtual WWDC.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for June 22, 2020.

1. Microsoft confirms acquisition of CyberX to boost security in its Azure IoT business

Microsoft announced today that it’s acquiring CyberX, a security startup that focuses on detecting, stopping and predicting security breaches on Internet of Things networks and the networks of large industrial organizations. Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but sources say that it’s in the region of $165 million.

The deal also illustrates how bigger tech companies are using the economic slowdown to focus on their longer-term strategies and shore up assets to support those strategies.

2. Canva raises $60 million on a $6 billion valuation

At the beginning of the pandemic, Canva made a commitment to continue paying all of its contracted workers, but froze hiring. The company also made quick moves to shut down the office and move to remote work. At the same time, Canva says it’s getting a boost from the world moving to work from home.

3. Live from Apple’s virtual WWDC 2020

What will Apple announce today? You can wait for tomorrow’s Daily Crunch to find out, or you can follow along with our live blog. The keynote starts at 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern.

4. Virgin Galactic to buy seats on rockets and train private astronauts for Space Station trips

Virgin Galactic is in the process of developing a sub-orbital space tourism program using its own spacecraft, but this deal would involve use of other spacecraft that have the capacity to reach orbit and the ISS — which Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo can’t do.

5. Ideas for a post-COVID-19 workplace

As a workplace strategist, Albert De Plazaola says he’s constantly asked, “What is the workplace of the future?” But in his view, Frank Lloyd Wright already designed the solution. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. BMW, Mercedes-Benz end ‘long-term’ automated driving alliance, for now

BMW Group and Mercedes-Benz AG have punted on what was meant to be a long-term collaboration to develop next-generation automated driving technology together, less than a year after announcing the agreement.

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The latest full-length Equity episode discusses the Hey email app and its developer’s dispute with Apple, while the Monday news roundup recaps recent fundings. And on Original Content, we review Spike Lee’s new movie on Netflix, “Da 5 Bloods.”

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Daily Crunch: Microsoft acquires CyberX

Microsoft acquires a security startup, Canva raises $60 million and Apple kicks off a virtual WWDC.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for June 22, 2020.

1. Microsoft confirms acquisition of CyberX to boost security in its Azure IoT business

Microsoft announced today that it’s acquiring CyberX, a security startup that focuses on detecting, stopping and predicting security breaches on Internet of Things networks and the networks of large industrial organizations. Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but sources say that it’s in the region of $165 million.

The deal also illustrates how bigger tech companies are using the economic slowdown to focus on their longer-term strategies and shore up assets to support those strategies.

2. Canva raises $60 million on a $6 billion valuation

At the beginning of the pandemic, Canva made a commitment to continue paying all of its contracted workers, but froze hiring. The company also made quick moves to shut down the office and move to remote work. At the same time, Canva says it’s getting a boost from the world moving to work from home.

3. Live from Apple’s virtual WWDC 2020

What will Apple announce today? You can wait for tomorrow’s Daily Crunch to find out, or you can follow along with our live blog. The keynote starts at 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern.

4. Virgin Galactic to buy seats on rockets and train private astronauts for Space Station trips

Virgin Galactic is in the process of developing a sub-orbital space tourism program using its own spacecraft, but this deal would involve use of other spacecraft that have the capacity to reach orbit and the ISS — which Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo can’t do.

5. Ideas for a post-COVID-19 workplace

As a workplace strategist, Albert De Plazaola says he’s constantly asked, “What is the workplace of the future?” But in his view, Frank Lloyd Wright already designed the solution. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. BMW, Mercedes-Benz end ‘long-term’ automated driving alliance, for now

BMW Group and Mercedes-Benz AG have punted on what was meant to be a long-term collaboration to develop next-generation automated driving technology together, less than a year after announcing the agreement.

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The latest full-length Equity episode discusses the Hey email app and its developer’s dispute with Apple, while the Monday news roundup recaps recent fundings. And on Original Content, we review Spike Lee’s new movie on Netflix, “Da 5 Bloods.”

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.