How Microsoft is building a machine learning future

It also turns out that Azure ML has been something of a pet project for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

When Barga was working at MSR, he was showing off a demo of machine learning and data analytics running as a service on Azure, connected to Excel. "You could just send your data up and it would do ML and come back and say 'you know, these two columns are correlated, you might want to see what's going on there'." Nadella liked the demo. "Satya got excited and it got me excited about doing this for real; bringing this to people as a service that would scale and bring value to our business customers."

Barga expects Azure ML to take off because of the huge demand for data scientists from businesses. Talking to business leaders visiting Microsoft, he says over the last two years, "the interest in machine learning and predictive analytics has gone from only one or two companies having even heard of it to 'that's what we came to talk to you about, and by the way we want to hire data scientists'. It's like picking up a newspaper and reading about the gold rush; I don't know how to mine but I need a shovel because I'm going!"

Data scientists aplenty

Cisco is currently training 500 of its engineers in data science and Barga expects this will become a standard company role.

He notes: "We're seeing the impact it can have. We're hearing our customers saying 'we want to have that capability, we want to make insights out of our data' and we're realising now is the time'.

"With the availability of computing in the cloud being able to open up an Azure account, the ability to store companies' historical data and then if you can just cross the chasm, take a technology which has historically been hard to use and has taken a high degree of expertise and figure out how to make it so our customers can actually use it in a meaningful and impactful way. When you give creative people tools they can use to explore and deploy to change their business it's incredibly disruptive, which is why we're very bullish about the whole potential for machine learning going forward."

Barga is expecting to see a lot more intelligent agents; Cortana and Delve are just the start. "I think we will see all sorts of agents that understand us; how we read our mail, how we process our mail, who is important to us, what things are we working on. Sometimes it doesn't take much; just a little bit of intelligence to help make your life much simpler. Here are the ten most important emails you want to read this morning of the 300 in your inbox. I think we're going to see increasingly the rise of intelligent agents that will make our lives just that much simpler."