Just a couple of weeks of ago, Microsoft put out $7.5 billion to buy Github in a move meant to convince developers to come to Azure and sit a spell. In a corresponding move this week, it bought Bonsai, a startup that helps companies inject their autonomous systems with AI.

It’s part of the broader change going on at Microsoft as it shifts its core business focus from Windows and Office to the cloud, a move that has been ongoing since Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014 (and was probably in motion even prior to that).

Part of that move involves getting developers to buy in to Microsoft’s particular approach to AI and machine learning. While the company has made huge strides in recent years in achieving bigger cloud marketshare, it still remains far behind market leader AWS.

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That means it needs to differentiate itself in big ways to land new customers as companies make the shift to the cloud. One way to do that is to capture the hearts and minds of developers, whether that involves GitHub or artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Another tool in the arsenal

Bonsai gives them an interesting piece in that it provides the company with tools and engineers to help customers add an AI layer to autonomous systems running inside companies.

Gurdeen Pall, Microsoft corporate vice president of business AI certainly recognized the potential here to boost Microsoft’s AI-focused business. “[Bonsai] is building a general-purpose, deep reinforcement learning platform especially suited for enterprises leveraging industrial control systems such as robotics, energy, HVAC, manufacturing, and autonomous systems in general. This includes unique machine-teaching innovations, automated model generation and management, a host of APIs and SDKs for simulator integration, as well as pre-built support for leading simulations all packaged in one end-to-end platform,” Pall wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

Those APIs and SDKs could be another way to help lure developers to the Microsoft platform and with an AI angle that has been hard to implement because of the complexity of the way autonomous systems work. Pall says the goal is to incorporate that technology into the Microsoft cloud platform and add additional value. 

“Bonsai’s platform combined with rich simulation tools and reinforcement learning work in Microsoft Research becomes the simplest and richest AI toolchain for building any kind of autonomous system for control and calibration tasks. This toolchain will compose with Azure Machine Learning running on the Azure Cloud with GPUs and Brainwave, and models built with it will be deployed and managed in Azure IoT, giving Microsoft an end-to-end solution for building, operating and enhancing “brains” for autonomous systems,” Pall explained.

By buying a company that solves a tough problem with development tools, Microsoft is giving developers and customers looking for unique cloud services another reason to consider Microsoft. As the company continues to look for ways to maintain steady growth on the Azure platform — revenue grew 93 percent last quarter — strategic acquisitions like this one should help.

Bonsai’s 42 employees will be joining Microsoft as part of the deal and will be incorporated into Microsoft’s AI and Research Group, according to a report on GeekWire.

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Photo: Many Wonderful Artists on Flickr. Public Domain license

Posted by Ron Miller

Ron Miller is a freelance technology reporter and blogger. He is contributing editor at EContent Magazine and enterprise reporter at TechCrunch.

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