The creation of the 5,000-person team comes as one of the company’s top engineering leaders, Qi Lu, departs to focus on recovery from a bicycle accident.
Microsoft has created a 5,000-person engineering and research team focused on artificial intelligence, an effort to reposition the company to capitalize on the rapid growth of software aided by machine-learning algorithms.
The move comes as Qi Lu, a longtime Microsoft engineering leader who was most recently executive vice president of the Applications and Services Group that includes Bing and Office, leaves the company to focus on his recovery from a bicycle accident.
Lu, a former Yahoo engineer with dozens of patents to his name, is widely respected within the technology industry, but a rare public speaker outside of it. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, worked for Lu when Nadella led engineering work on the Bing search engine.
Before Microsoft: Undergraduate and graduate degrees in China, Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon. Worked as a researcher at IBM, and later spent 10 years at Yahoo.
Microsoft career: Joined in 2008 to lead online services, including search and MSN. Later added oversight of Office and Skype.
New role: Stepping down from to recover from a biking accident. Plans to return as an adviser to CEO Satya Nadella and Bill Gates.
Before Microsoft: Undergraduate and graduate degrees in China, Ph.D in robotics from Carnegie Mellon.
At Microsoft: Joined in 1996. Helped found Microsoft Research China. Later, led engineering for Bing, and most recently Microsoft Research
New role: Executive vice president of Artificial Intelligence and Research group (Bing, Cortana, Microsoft Research)
Before Microsoft: Undergraduate degree in India, M.S., University of Massachusetts, Amherst
At Microsoft: Joined out of college in 1990 as a software engineer. Worked on Microsoft Works and various Office and online services. Later led Office 365.
New role: Executive vice president of Office Product group (Office, Skype, OneNote)
Sources: Microsoft, Seattle Times archives
“Qi exemplifies what it means to have a deep sense of mission, purpose and authenticity in everything one does,” Nadella said in an email to employees on Thursday. “His greatest impact is the people he has inspired. I count myself among them.”
The creation of the AI unit is part of a wide-ranging effort to make smarter software integral to Microsoft products, in applications like the Cortana voice-activated assistant and algorithms tied to the Office suite designed to help workers analyze how they spend their time.
Such tools occupied much of Microsoft’s time at its Ignite information technology conference in Atlanta this week. In a speech there, Nadella compared the coming explosion in artificial- intelligence technologies to milestones like the invention of the printing press and the internet.
The new group will “enable Microsoft to create truly intelligent systems and products,” Harry Shum, the executive vice president in charge of the new group, said in a blog post. “I believe we have some of the best AI talent on the planet, and we’ll continue to attract even more.”
Under Shum, the new team will combine the engineering groups working on Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Cortana digital assistant, as well as the 1,000-employee Microsoft Research division Shum had led previously.
Early in his Microsoft career, Shum helped establish the Redmond company’s research outpost in China. He later spent seven years guiding the engineering work on Bing when Microsoft was spending billions in an effort to catch up with Google in web search.
Microsoft never came close to Google, but the engineering work behind Bing, from the creation of a network of data centers to algorithms designed to anticipate human intent, helped lay the groundwork for the company’s later work in areas including cloud computing and its Cortana assistant.
With Lu’s departure and the creation of the AI unit, the remainder of his team — chiefly groups working on Office and Skype — will be led by Rajesh Jha and rebranded the Office Product group.
The two new units make four major engineering teams at Microsoft.
The other two are the Windows and Devices group led by Terry Myerson, which includes Windows, Surface and Xbox, and Scott Guthrie’s Cloud and Enterprise group, which encompasses Microsoft’s developer-tools, cloud-computing platform, and some business applications.
After his recovery, Lu will serve as a technology adviser to Nadella and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Nadella said.