Todyl, a New York City company that sells a networking and security platform through MSPs, reported increasing interest in its product as organizations face secure remote access challenges.
“Things have been rapidly evolving over the last two weeks with the COVID-19 response,” Todyl CEO John Nellen said. “We have been really busy trying to help existing partners and new partners.”
The company offers MSPs — and their SMB customers — the ability to consolidate networking and security components into a cloud-based platform. Todyl MSP partners deploy the technology by installing agents on customers’ Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android devices. A VPN tunnel then links customers to Todyl’s Secure Global Network offering, which incorporates web proxy, firewall, content filtering, intrusion detection/prevention (IDP), malware interception and security information and event management (SIEM) technologies.
The Secure Global Network’s points of presence link end customers to multiple network providers. Todyl’s platform connects organizations’ remote workers, data centers, cloud providers, main offices and branch locations, according to the company.
Todyl is currently offering its platform to MSPs for free for 30 days “to help support the immediate need,” Nellen said. Once the offer expires, pricing is device-based with add-on features. Todyl offers pricing for two groups: mobile (Android/iOS) and desktop/laptop/server (Windows, Mac, Linux).
MSP taps Todyl for remote enablement
Infinit Consulting Inc., an MSP based in Campbell, Calif., is selling Todyl as a white-labeled offering. The company has branded Todyl as Infinit Shield Total Defense, which it has paired with its own Infinit Shield security process management platform, according to Jerod Powell, president and founder of Infinit Consulting.
Powell called Todyl “instrumental in helping our customers rapidly enable complete remote workforce capabilities.”
Infinit Consulting had previously enabled nearly all of its customers to use cloud services, but the company is currently tasked with helping them significantly expand remote workforces. The expansion sometimes includes moving customers from having 15% of employees working remotely to nearly 100%.
While assisting with remote workforce expansions, Infinit Consulting has run into issues such as licensing and hardware limitations around customers’ previous remote work applications, Powell said. He pointed to another issue: Properly securing devices to ensure data integrity, company policy adherence and security, while allowing employees to work remotely — often from their personal home PC or Mac.
Powell said Todyl lets Infinit Consulting enable remote access in a matter of a few hours in a full-scale deployment. The Todyl offering also lets the company “secure that remote connection 100%, end to end;” bring clients onto the Secure Global Network; and feed data back to the SIEM. The SIEM feature provides the MSP with “the telemetry needed to identify potential security risks [and] enforce corporate policy just as if [remote employees] were on the client’s LAN.”
John NellenCEO, Todyl
He said Todyl also offers IDP and advanced threat protection scanning to flag potentially malicious applications and data before they reach customers.
The demand for supporting customers’ remote workforces is “extremely high,” Powell noted. He cited a case in which Infinit Consulting rolled out Todyl to a customer that needed to enable more than 500 users to work remotely. The customer’s previous remote work product only supported 100 users. Todyl also identified security issues in several of remote workers’ home PCs. The MSP was able to resolve those issues before admitting the remote workers’ devices onto the network, he added.
Powell said his company has created deployment packages for Todyl that can implement the product in an automated manner.
Waves of demand for secure remote access
Citing conversations with Todyl MSP partners, Nellen said MSPs anticipate two waves of unfolding demand for remote work technology.
The first wave consists of early adopters trying to quickly set up their organizations for newly distributed workforces. The second wave will comprise SMBs that have yet to determine the best way to support remote workers. Those companies will start making decisions, based on guidance from government agencies, in the coming weeks, Nellen said.
“They are expecting this not to be just a single shot, but something that is taking place and evolving over time,” Nellen said.
The city of Las Vegas used AI-driven infrastructure security tools to stop an attacker in January before sensitive IT systems were accessed, but the city’s leadership bets future attempts won’t even get that far.
“Between CrowdStrike [endpoint security] and Darktrace [threat detection], both tools did exactly what they were supposed to do,” said Michael Sherwood, chief innovation officer for Las Vegas. “We had [a user] account compromised, and that allowed someone to gain short-term access to our systems.”
The city’s IT staff thwarted that attacker almost immediately in the early morning of Jan. 7. IT pros took measures to keep the attacker from accessing any of the city’s data once security monitoring tools alerted them to the intrusion.
The city has also used Okta access management tools for the last two years to consolidate user identity and authentication for its internal employees and automate access to applications through a self-service portal. Next, it will reinforce that process with multi-factor authentication using the same set of tools, in the hopes further cyberattacks will be stopped well outside its IT infrastructure.
Multi-factor security will couple a physical device — such as an employee badge or a USB key issued by the city — with usernames and passwords. This will reduce the likelihood that such an account compromise will happen again, Sherwood said. Having access management and user-level SecOps centralized within Okta has been key for the city to expand its security measures quickly based on what it learned from this breach. By mid-February, its IT team was able to test different types of multi-factor authentication systems and planned to roll one out within 60 days of the security incident.
“With dual-factor authentication, you can’t just have a user ID and password — something you know,” Sherwood said. “A bad actor might know a user ID and password, but now they have to [physically] have something as well.”
SecOps automation a shrewd gamble for Las Vegas
Las Vegas initially rolled out Okta in 2018 to improve the efficiency of its IT help desk. Sherwood estimated the access management system cut down on help desk calls relating to forgotten passwords and password resets by 25%. The help desk also no longer had to manually install new applications for users because of an internal web portal connected to Okta that automatically manages authorization and permissions for self-service downloads. That freed up help desk employees for more strategic SecOps work, which now includes the multi-factor authentication rollout.
Another SecOps update slated for this year will add city employees’ mobile devices to the Okta identity management system, and an Okta single sign-on service for Las Vegas citizens that use the city’s web portal.
Residents will get one login for all services under this plan, Sherwood said. “If they get a parking citation and they’re used to paying their sewer bill, it’s the same login, and they can pay them both through a shopping cart.”
Michael SherwoodChief innovation officer, city of Las Vegas
Okta replaced a hodgepodge of different access management systems the city used previously, usually built into individual IT systems. When Las Vegas evaluated centralized access management tools two years ago, Okta was the only vendor in the group that was completely cloud-hosted, Sherwood said. This was a selling point for the city, since it minimized the operational overhead to set up and run the system.
Okta’s service competes with the likes of Microsoft Active Directory, OneLogin and Auth0. Las Vegas also uses Active Directory for access management in its back-end IT infrastructure, while Okta serves the customer and employee side of the organization.
“There is still separation between certain things, even though one product may well be capable of [handling] both,” he said.
Ultimately, the city would like to institute a centralized online payment system for citizens to go along with website single sign-on, and Sherwood said he’d like to see Okta offer that feature and electronic signatures as well.
“They’d have lot of opportunity there,” he said. “We can do payments and electronic signatures with different providers, but it would be great having that more integrated into the authentication process.”
An Okta representative said the company doesn’t have plans to support payment credentials at this time but that the company welcomes customer feedback.
Last week, we unveiled the Mobs in the Park pop-up experience in New York City, Sydney and London
Since kicking off early access on Oct. 17, the global community has placed 240.4 million blocks, collected 76 million tappables and started 6.8 million crafting and smelting sessions
The Mobs in the Park will continue over the next two weekends from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. local time, as well as a special appearance on Black Friday in New York City
Last week in celebration of Minecraft Earth’s early access rollout, we unveiled the Mobs in the Park pop-up experience in three locations around the world – Hudson Yards in New York City, Campbell’s Cove in Sydney and the Queen’s Walk in London – granting players exclusive in-game access to the holiday-themed Jolly Llama mob. The community’s response to Mobs in the Park has been humbling over the first weekend, and we can’t wait to see even more reactions leading into the next two weekends.
The fun doesn’t stop with Mobs in the Park as Minecraft Earth continues to gain momentum and roll out to more countries worldwide. Last week the game released in the U.S., earlier this week it became available to players in Western Europe and Japan, and the goal is for the game to be worldwide by the end of the year.
Since kicking off early access on Oct. 17, the global community has placed 240.4 million blocks, collected 76 million tappables and started 6.8 million crafting and smelting sessions! We’re so proud of how the community has embraced the game in early access rollout and look forward to bringing even more exciting experiences to players everywhere in the coming weeks.
Minecraft Earth’s Mobs in the Park will continue over the next two weekends, so players interested in receiving the Jolly Llama for themselves can visit the interactive pop-ups from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. local time during the weekends of November 23-24 and November 30-December 1, or during a special appearance at Hudson Yards in New York City on Black Friday, November 29. Only at these locations will players be able to get first access to the holiday-inspired Jolly Llama before it’s available broadly in December.
For more information on Mobs in the Park and what’s next with early access rollout, visit Xbox Wire and Minecraft.net.
As a new vendor’s first customer, the IT leader of a city wouldn’t be faulted for worrying about the product.
But Cory Smith, CIO and CTO of Davenport, Iowa, said he didn’t have concerns with using Clumio for backup and recovery. Clumio, which is based in Santa Clara, Calif., came out of stealth Aug. 13 with its cloud-based backup as a service.
Smith said the city was looking for a new backup product earlier this year when Clumio contacted him about trying out a beta version. He said he felt more at ease with the product after using it in beta and performing backups and restores. The city purchased Clumio as soon as it became generally available April 30.
Though Davenport doesn’t have a major cloud initiative, Smith said going cloud-only for backup is a goal.
“This is one of those situations where the cloud is really good for us,” Smith said.
Striving for simplicity
Clumio CEO and co-founder Poojan Kumar aims for his company to do with backup what Salesforce has done with CRM and ServiceNow with service management. He wants to deliver a true service offering that’s completely run and managed in the cloud by Clumio.
“SaaS is taking over,” Kumar said. “Our founding vision was really around going and building a data management platform on top of the public cloud.”
Poojan KumarCEO, Clumio
Kumar said he wants customers to get away from the complex nature of installing software and hardware for backup. In addition, as workloads are moving to the cloud, the practice of using multiple accounts, regions and clouds is increasing complexity.
“We saw all of this as an opportunity for simplification,” Kumar said.
To start, Clumio protects on-premises and cloud-based VMware environments on top of AWS. It also provides native AWS backup for accounts that run Elastic Compute Cloud and Elastic Block Store.
The majority of backup vendors were “born in the world of on premises,” delivering protection through software, hardware or both, which the customer has to manage, Kumar said. He said legacy backup players cannot take advantage of the public cloud “the right way” by building a cloud-native architecture and true SaaS platform.
“By SaaS, I mean a true service that is multi-tenant that frees the customer from the mundane of managing these solutions,” Kumar said.
Andrew Smith, research manager at IDC, noted that Clumio customers don’t need to use anything on premises. They can simply spin up the virtual appliance and start using Clumio. The vendor says it takes 15 minutes to get the product running.
“The way they’re approaching backup as a service as an all-inclusive platform is unique,” Smith said. “The idea is to ‘SaaSify’ the entire backup environment.”
Davenport’s Smith said even with his larger environment — about 70 VMs and 40 TB worth — getting to the cloud was not an issue.
The city, with a population of about 100,000, has to retain some data indefinitely. For example, police video — a data set that’s often large — could be critical in court 10 years from now.
“The city’s not going to go out of business,” he said. “I’ve got to keep it.”
Smith said its price is an advantage. Because Clumio charges per virtual machine rather than by the size of the VM, the cost does not rise as a VM grows larger.
A look at current and future features
Smith said Davenport was looking for a new backup system because its Rubrik platform wasn’t performing well enough, especially with getting data sets to the cloud. The city wanted to get away from running hardware on premises and using traditional disaster recovery, and sought a cheap cloud service.
“Clumio has kind of hit that niche,” Smith said.
He acknowledged that the product is not yet mature and Clumio is still adding functionality. He said he’s looking for the vendor to add Microsoft Exchange and SQL support. Davenport still uses old Veeam licensing for Exchange and SQL Server, but Smith said he thinks eventually the city will only use Clumio for backup. He said he finds the interface and search easy to use.
“You know that you can go back to the copy [and] it’s going to be kosher,” Kumar said. “We do a whole bunch of things automatically in the platform to make sure that it is restorable to the previous copy. It’s not just about backing it up — it’s about making sure it is restorable.”
Kumar said he expects Clumio will delve into machine learning to help look at potential issues with customer data.
Funding, founders, fighting status quo
Clumio has $51 million in funding over two rounds. Sutter Hill Ventures led the Series A round. Index Ventures drove the Series B round, which also had significant participation from Sutter Hill Ventures.
The company was founded in 2017. Kaustubh Patil, vice president of engineering, and CTO Woon Ho Jung were the other founders with Kumar. All three founders previously worked at VMware, Nutanix and PernixData. Kumar was a founder of PernixData, which was acquired by Nutanix.
Clumio has about 75 employees, Kumar said.
The product is sold exclusively through the channel.
IDC’s Smith said competition will include Veeam, Zerto, Rubrik and Cohesity, as well as the more traditional backup vendors such as Veritas, Dell EMC and Commvault. Druva and Carbonite are also leaders in cloud-based backup.
“They’re going to have to compete with everybody,” Smith said. “It’s going to be pretty difficult.”
It will be important for Clumio to attract customers moving all data to the cloud, Smith said, as well as users tackling multi-cloud and that increased complexity of environment.
Kumar said his biggest competition is the status quo.
“It’s going to be about educating the market that something like this is possible,” Kumar said. “And we can give you freedom from the mundane.”
Microsoft chose to open its first European flagship store in London because the city is “hard to beat,” one of the company’s top executives has revealed.
Chris Capossela, Chief Marketing Officer, visited the store with UK CEO Cindy Rose ahead of its launch on July 11, and he said there were “very few locations in the world” that are as appealing as the UK capital.
Capossela (above) said it contains many one-of-a-kind features, including a full-sized McLaren Senna sports car that doubles as a Forza Motorsport 7 experience, a Gaming Lounge, a Community Theatre featuring free workshops all-year-round and an entire floor dedicated to helping businesses and organisations use technology.
“Around 86 million people pass through Oxford Circus every year,” he said. “That’s hard to beat. London is also an incredibly diverse city, so we can serve lots of different customers here; it’s a very pan-European city.
“There are very few locations in the world that feature all the different parts that make up what Microsoft is. The early adoption of technology in the UK has been very impressive. That’s important when the company is thinking about what investments to make and where to make them. This flagship would not be in London if we didn’t have a very strong commercial business in this country. We thought very deeply about this.”
The central London flagship store has a modern feel, with lots of space and wood and glass surfaces. Visitors will be greeted on the ground floor by a large video wall and Surface devices on tables, with the McLaren on their right and the HoloLens mixed-reality headset to their left. A wooden spiral staircase or lifts will take them to the Gaming Lounge on the first floor, where they can play the latest Xbox and PC titles in high-quality gaming chairs and professional pods, purchase third-party laptops and accessories and get tech support, trainings, repairs and advice from the Answer Desk. All visitors can create their own personalised Surface Type Cover with Surface Design Lab, featuring a range of designs that can be etched directly onto the cover. They can also take photos in the Selfie Area.
The enterprise area on the second floor is a place to support, train and grow businesses no matter where they are on their digital transformation journey. From small companies and educational institutions to enterprise customers, the Product Advisors and Cloud Technical Experts will help customers discover, deploy and use Microsoft 365 and other resources to solve business challenges such as AI, data security, collaboration and workplace efficiencies. This floor also contains an area for hosting events, as well as meeting rooms and a Showcase space for demonstrating how customers, including Carlsberg and Toyota, are digitally transforming.
It is also the most accessible store Microsoft has ever opened, with buttons to open doors, lower desks to help those in wheelchairs and Xbox Adaptive Controllers available for gamers with restricted movement.
The 150 Store Associates welcoming visitors speak a total of 45 languages, and selected members of the team can also communicate in British Sign Language. John Carter, Senior Store Manager at the store, said the staff are a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities and abilities, and had all gone through six weeks of training to “deliver our customer-obsessed culture” from when the doors open at 11am on July 11.
Rose also announced that Microsoft is donating £1 million to three charities – UK Youth, Raspberry Pi Foundation and The London Community Foundation – to help them continue to teach digital skills to disadvantaged young people and to support grass-roots community groups in Westminster with digital and employability skills.
“I’m excited about this donation because it’s going to give these charities the opportunity to have even more of an impact across the UK. We are also auctioning 10 limited edition Surface devices designed by British retailer Liberty London, with all proceeds going to gaming charity SpecialEffect, which helped develop the Xbox Adaptive Controller.”
Talking about the journey to this week’s opening, she added: This has been a three-year labour of love for me. During my Microsoft job interview [in 2016] I remember discussing the need for a Microsoft retail store in London. That’s how long I’ve been thinking about this and planning it. I feel like that part of the jigsaw is now complete.
“What I love most about this flagship is that it’s so much more than just a shopping experience. It is a destination where we can engage with local community to bring our mission to life. Whether it’s teaching kids to code, training educators on how to use tech in the classroom, or showing small businesses and large enterprises how we can help digitally transform their organisation, this store will be the best place to experience all that’s possible with Microsoft.”
Capossela, who said it is “really important for us to have a place that people can walk into and experience Microsoft,” agreed that the store will appeal to every type of customer.
“I want all our stores to have a Microsoft vibe, be very colourful, human and approachable,” he said. “These are the things we want our brand to stand for. The London flagship has some special experiences. I feel very lucky that we have found a space as good as Oxford Circus in London.”
The couple remodeled their two-story townhouse near Guatemala City so he had everything he needed on the first floor and didn’t have to navigate stairs. Otto learned to use a trackball mouse with his foot to type with an on-screen keyboard. But it was cumbersome, and he needed Pamela nearby to move the cursor from one corner of his two 32-inch screens to another as he navigated Excel spreadsheets and Power BI dashboards.
A tracheotomy was put in his throat to help him breathe, taking away his limited speech and increasing his isolation. But when Knoke, who spends two hours a day reading blogs and researching, saw his friend Juan Alvarado’s post about the new Eye Control feature in Windows 10, he let loose with his version of a shout and immediately ordered the Tobii Eye Tracker hardware to use with the software.
Alvarado, who met Knoke as a database consultant working on the ATM system Knoke had implemented, hadn’t known about Knoke’s condition until he suddenly saw him in a wheelchair one day. And fittingly, Eye Control itself began with a wheelchair.
Microsoft employees, inspired by former pro football player Steve Gleason, who had lost the use of his limbs to ALS, outfitted a wheelchair with electronic gadgets to help him drive with his eyes during the company’s first Hackathon, in 2014. The project was so popular that a new Microsoft Research team was formed to explore the potential of eye-tracking technology to help people with disabilities, leading to last year’s release of Eye Control for Windows 10.
Knoke said it was “a joy” to learn how to type with his eyes, getting the feel of having sensors track his eye movements as he navigated around the screen and rested his gaze on the elements he wanted to click. Using Eye Control and the on-screen keyboard, he now can type 12 words a minute and creates spreadsheets, Power BI dashboards and even PowerPoint presentations. Combined with his foot-operated mouse, his productivity has doubled. He plans to expand his services to the U.S., where he spent six years studying and working in the 1970s. He no longer relies on his wife’s voice, because Eye Control offers a text-to-speech function as well.
“It was frustrating trying to be understood,” Knoke said in the email interview. “After a few days of using Eye Control I became so independent that I did not need someone to interact with clients when there were questions or I needed to explain something. We have a remote session to the client’s computer, and we open Notepad and interact with each other that way.”
His wife and his nurse had learned to understand the sounds he was able to make, even with the tracheotomy restricting his vocal chords. But now he can communicate with his three grown daughters, his friends and all his customers.
“Now when our children visit, he can be not just nodding at what they say, but he can be inside the conversation, too,” Pamela Knoke said. “He always has a big smile on his face, because he’s got his independence back.”
He’s also started texting jokes to friends again.
“It’s kind of like it brought my friend back, and it’s amazing,” Alvarado said. “Otto told me that for him, it was like eye tracking meant his arms can move again.”
Being able to text message with Eye Control has helped his business as well.
Grupo Tir, a real-estate development and telecommunications business in Guatemala, hired Knoke for several projects, including streamlining its sales team’s tracking of travel expenses with Power BI.
“Working with Otto has been amazing,” said Grupo Tir Chief Financial Officer Cristina Martinez. “We can’t really meet with him, so we usually work with texts, and it’s like a normal conversation.
“He really has no limitations, and he always is looking for new ways to improve and to help companies.”
This week, the Microsoft Education team is in the Windy City showing off some exciting new technology and curricula to support STEM learning at the annual ISTE conference.
In today’s job market, 50 percent of jobs require technology skills, and in the next 10 years, these types of jobs will outpace non-technology jobs by nearly two to one. It’s more important than ever to help students understand and appreciate STEM fields, to prepare them for the future workplace and to be digital citizens in a rapidly changing world.
Technology can empower educators to deliver inspiring lessons, personalize instruction and build creativity and critical thinking skills, which is why we’re so excited to bring STEM to life with these new tools and programs!
1. Bring the mystery of the oceans to your classroom with new STEM lesson plans
In partnership with BBC Learning, we’re thrilled to announce a new collection of teacher-written, inquiry-based lesson plans to compliment the BBC Earth and OCEANX film, Oceans: Our Blue Planet.
These interdisciplinary experiences engage students in answering four big questions: how ocean currents form, how sharks swim, how deep the ocean is, and how to craft coral reefs.
How do sharks swim?
Learn about the 3D coordinate system by working with physical and digital shark models to understand yaw, pitch, and roll in order to survey a marine environment.
How deep is the ocean?
Students explore remote terrains by modeling and graphing the ocean floors with an ultrasonic sensor to visualize organisms that live in different ocean layers.
How are ocean currents formed?
Students discover how salinity and temperature impact ocean currents by conducting experiments, building electrical conductivity sensors, and analyzing global data.
How to craft coral reefs
Through the power of Minecraft: Education Edition, take your classroom underwater to discover the different types of reefs and what can be done to save them.
Students start by taking on the roles of biological oceanographers and marine geologists, biologists, and physicists. Then, working through the content, they are challenged to write code, build sensors, analyze data, and create in 3D and mixed reality. These hands-on explorations are ISTE and NGSS standards aligned and include reflection, documentation, and assessment activities that are supported by a rich archive of stills and clips made possible by BBC Learning from BBC Studios. What’s more, they can all be done for less than a few dollars with everyday objects.
Check out these great new STEM lesson plans to build future ready skills in your classroom today and show students how to:
Craft coral reefs and explore shipwrecks in Minecraft: Education Edition using MakeCode scripting
Write sensor programs with Data Streamer Connect
Flash code for both Arduino and Micro:bit microcontrollers
Construct an electroconductivity sensor to measure conductivity of ocean water
Assemble an ultrasonic sensor to map the ocean floor
Engineer a joystick to navigate a robotic shark through a virtual marine environment
Stream real-time data from your sensors into Excel with Data Streamer
Work with global oceanic climate, temperature and salinity big data sets
Compare the world’s mountain heights to the depths of the ocean floor trenches
Work in 3D
Model the five ocean zones in Paint 3D and populate them with marine organisms
Animate a shark model in PowerPoint to understand yaw, pitch and roll
Use a 3D model of the world to understand how ocean currents circulate around the globe
Review and reflect:
Check understanding of mathematical and scientific concepts with interactive visualizations in Excel
Use photo and videos to create lab notebooks, student journals, and presentations
Teachers can also take their students on an underwater global odyssey in Oceans: Our Blue Planet, a BBC Earth and OCEANX film that reveals extraordinary discoveries and untold stories of the oceans’ most astonishing creatures. ISTE attendees can join usnext week for a free viewing of the BBC Earth and OCEANX film, Oceans: Our Blue Planet, and see how it brings this STEM experience to life.
Minecraft: Education Edition continues to grow with 35 million K-12 teachers and students in 115 countries around the world now licensed to use the game to transform the way they teach and learn. Teachers are using Minecraft to teach every subject imaginable and encouraging student collaboration, creativity and digital citizenship. This week, we’re sharing a cool glimpse of new worlds coming to Minecraft: Education Edition.
ISTE attendees this week will get to experience the Update Aquatic for Minecraft: Education Edition, a new set of game features and underwater worlds available for free to all Minecraft: Education Edition users. Students can use coding to build coral reefs, explore shipwrecks and underwater monuments, learn about sustainable fishing, and rescue dolphins. Educators are invited to use the free lessons provided with the update, which will be demoed at ISTE in the Microsoft Education booth by the Minecraft team and members of the Minecraft Global Mentor program.
3. Apply now for a Limitless Libraries grant to enrich the learning experience at your public or school library with mixed reality headsets
Microsoft is excited to announce Limitless Libraries, a new Mixed Reality grant program designed to help foster Mixed Reality adoption in education. The fund is open for applications starting today with the first recipients selected at the end of the summer. Sign up today!
Libraries – both in schools and in the community – have long been a place where students immerse themselves in the learning experience and ignite their creativity, envisioning their favorite stories come to life. With the expansion of digital technology like mixed reality headsets, we see a new world of possibility to transform learning efficiency, retention, and student engagement.
The grant provides libraries with all the resources for getting a Mixed Reality program up and running, including:
Two Windows Mixed Reality headsets and two computers to operate them
Technical training of staff and administration
Assistance with marketing resources and program scheduling
Email support to answer any questions going forward
Access to other grantees
Updates about new content rollouts
Middle schools and High schools (grades 6-12) can apply, as can public libraries. Grant applicants whose programs provide exposure and increased knowledge in STEM, and where a high percentage of participating youth are considered underserved as deﬁned in the local context, will be given priority.
Artificial intelligence is already helping people do things like type faster texts and take better pictures, and it’s increasingly being used to make even bigger decisions, such as who gets a new job and who goes to jail. That’s prompting researchers across Microsoft and throughout the machine learning community to ensure that the data used to develop AI systems reflect the real world, are safeguarded against unintended bias and handled in ways that are transparent and respectful of privacy and security.
Data is the food that fuels machine learning. It’s the representation of the world that is used to train machine learning models, explained Hanna Wallach, a senior researcher in Microsoft’s New York research lab. Wallach is a program co-chair of the Annual Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems from Dec. 4 to Dec. 9 in Long Beach, California. The conference, better known as “NIPS,” is expected to draw thousands of computer scientists from industry and academia to discuss machine learning – the branch of AI that focuses on systems that learn from data.
“We often talk about datasets as if they are these well-defined things with clear boundaries, but the reality is that as machine learning becomes more prevalent in society, datasets are increasingly taken from real-world scenarios, such as social processes, that don’t have clear boundaries,” said Wallach, who together with the other program co-chairs introduced a new subject area at NIPS on fairness, accountability and transparency. “When you are constructing or choosing a dataset, you have to ask, ‘Is this dataset representative of the population that I am trying to model?’”
Kate Crawford, a principal researcher at Microsoft’s New York research lab, calls it “the trouble with bias,” and it’s the central focus of an invited talk she will be giving at NIPS.
“The people who are collecting the datasets decide that, ‘Oh this represents what men and women do, or this represents all human actions or human faces.’ These are types of decisions that are made when we create what are called datasets,” she said. “What is interesting about training datasets is that they will always bear the marks of history, that history will be human, and it will always have the same kind of frailties and biases that humans have.”
Researchers are also looking at the separate but related issue of whether there is enough diversity among AI researchers. Research has shown that more diverse teams choose more diverse problems to work on and produce more innovative solutions. Two events co-located with NIPS will address this issue: The 12thWomen in Machine Learning Workshop, where Wallach, who co-founded Women in Machine Learning, will give an invited talk on the merger of machine learning with the social sciences, and the Black in AI workshop, which was co-founded by Timnit Gebru, a post-doctoral researcher at Microsoft’s New York lab.
“In some types of scientific disciplines, it doesn’t matter who finds the truth, there is just a particular truth to be found. AI is not exactly like that,” said Gebru. “We define what kinds of problems we want to solve as researchers. If we don’t have diversity in our set of researchers, we are at risk of solving a narrow set of problems that a few homogeneous groups of people think are important, and we are at risk of not addressing the problems that are faced by many people in the world.”
Machine learning core
At its core, NIPS is an academic conference with hundreds of papers that describe the development of machine learning models and the data used to train them.
Microsoft researchers authored or co-authored 43 accepted conference papers. They describe everything from the latest advances in retrieving data stored in synthetic DNA to a method for repeatedly collecting telemetry data from user devices without compromising user privacy.
Nearly every paper presented at NIPS over the past three decades considers data in some way, noted Wallach. “The difference in recent years, though,” she added, “is that machine learning no longer exists in a purely academic context, where people use synthetic or standard datasets. Rather, it’s something that affects all kinds of aspects of our lives.”
The application of machine-learning models to real-world problems and challenges is, in turn, bringing into focus issues of fairness, accountability and transparency.
“People are becoming more aware of the influence that algorithms have on their lives, determining everything from what news they read to what products they buy to whether or not they get a loan. It’s natural that as people become more aware, they grow more concerned about what these algorithms are actually doing and where they get their data,” said Jenn Wortman Vaughan, a senior researcher at Microsoft’s New York lab.
The trouble with bias
Data is not something that exists in the world as an object that everyone can see and recognize, explained Crawford. Rather, data is made. When scientists first began to catalog the history of the natural world, they recognized types of information as data, she noted. Today, scientists also see data as a construct of human history.
Crawford’s invited talk at NIPS will highlight examples of machine learning bias such as news organization ProPublica’s investigation that exposed bias against African-Americans in an algorithm used by courts and law enforcement to predict the tendency of convicted criminals to reoffend, and then discuss how to address such bias.
“We can’t simply boost a signal or tweak a convolutional neural network to resolve this issue,” she said. “We need to have a deeper sense of what is the history of structural inequity and bias in these systems.”
One method to address bias, according to Crawford, is to take what she calls a social system analysis approach to the conception, design, deployment and regulation of AI systems to think through all the possible effects of AI systems. She recently described the approach in a commentary for the journal Nature.
Crawford noted that this isn’t a challenge that computer scientists will solve alone. She is also a co-founder of the AI Now Institute, a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary research institute based at New York University that was launched in November to bring together social scientists, computer scientists, lawyers, economists and engineers to study the social implications of AI, machine learning and algorithmic decision making.
Interpretable machine learning
One way to address concerns about AI and machine learning is to prioritize transparency by making AI systems easier for humans to interpret. At NIPS, Vaughan, one of the New York lab’s researchers, will give a talk describing a large-scale experiment that she and colleagues are running to learn what factors make machine learning models interpretable and understandable for non-machine learning experts.
“The idea here is to add more transparency to algorithmic predictions so that decision makers understand why a particular prediction is made,” said Vaughan.
For example, does the number of features or inputs to a model impact a person’s ability to catch instances where the model makes a mistake? Do people trust a model more when they can see how a model makes its prediction as opposed to when the model is a black box?
The research, said Vaughan, is a first step toward the development of “tools aimed at helping decision makers understand the data used to train their models and the inherent uncertainty in their models’ predictions.”
Patrice Simard, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, research lab who is a co-organizer of the symposium, said the field of interpretable machine learning should take a cue from computer programming, where the art of decomposing problems into smaller problems with simple, understandable steps has been learned. “But in machine learning, we are completely behind. We don’t have the infrastructure,” he said.
To catch up, Simard advocates a shift to what he calls machine teaching – giving machines features to look for when solving a problem, rather than looking for patterns in mountains of data. Instead of training a machine learning model for car buying with millions of images of cars labeled as good or bad, teach a model about features such as fuel economy and crash-test safety, he explained.
The teaching strategy is deliberate, he added, and results in an interpretable hierarchy of concepts used to train machine learning models.
One step to safeguard against unintended bias creeping into AI systems is to encourage diversity in the field, noted Gebru, the co-organizer of the Black in AI workshop co-located with NIPS. “You want to make sure that the knowledge that people have of AI training is distributed around the world and across genders and ethnicities,” she said.
The importance of researcher diversity struck Wallach, the NIPS program co-chair, at her fourth NIPS conference in 2005. For the first time, she was sharing a hotel room with three roommates, all of them women. One of them was Vaughan, and the two of them, along with one of their roommates, co-founded the Women in Machine Learning group, which is now in its 12th year and has held a workshop co-located with NIPS since 2008. This year, more than 650 women are expected to attend.
Wallach will give an invited talk at the Women in Machine Learning Workshop about how she applies machine learning in the context of social science to measure unobservable theoretical constructs such as community membership or topics of discussion.
“Whenever you are working with data that is situated within society contexts,” she said, “necessarily it is important to think about questions of ethics, fairness, accountability, transparency and privacy.”
John Roach writes about Microsoft research and innovation. Follow him on Twitter.
The city of Atlanta is moving to Oracle’s full cloud for human resources, procurement and finance. To help win the deal, the city released eyebrow-raising cost estimates that show the city has little choice but to move to Oracle’s ERP/HCM Cloud platform.
Atlanta is a longtime Oracle user. Its last big ERP upgrade was around 2007. This time, it was planning on a hybrid cloud adoption, keeping some systems on premises and others in Oracle ERP Cloud. The city didn’t believe all of the Oracle ERP Cloud offerings were on par with the on-premises systems, hence the hybrid approach. This view changed as the planning progressed.
For Oracle, getting customers to migrate to its cloud platform is a top priority. But the financial incentives behind these deals are rarely disclosed, at least until Atlanta offered a glimpse at some of the cost estimates.
The Atlanta City Council finance committee was shown a series of slides that sketched out the financial case for a full cloud approach. Officials were told that the 10-year total cost of ownership difference between Oracle’s E-Business Suite (EBS)/HCM Cloud and Oracle’s full ERP/HCM Cloud was $26 million. That’s how much more the city would spend over a 10-year period if it went with a hybrid approach.
Oracle’s licensing terms between the two platforms were starkly different. Under the hybrid approach, the annual licensing would see a “4% increase per year for EBS/HCM Cloud hybrid (until year 10) vs. 0% increase until year 5” for the ERP Cloud. That full ERP Cloud saw a one-time 3% increase in year six over the 10-year agreement.
Analysts and consultants who have seen the slides say there’s not enough information to tell, exactly, how these estimates were calculated. However, the differences in licensing costs between hybrid, on-premises and full cloud ERP delivers a clear message.
“I assumed that this was Oracle’s way of financially motivating the decision they wanted,” said Marc Tanowitz, a managing director at Pace Harmon, a management consultancy that advises firms making similar decisions.
The Atlanta mayor’s office declined to make an official available for an interview or to answer written questions. A spokeswoman said the city would not comment. In addition, Oracle said it couldn’t discuss a specific customer agreement.
At the start of this project, Oracle’s HCM Cloud was described by Atlanta officials as mature and ready for full cloud deployment. The city initially concluded that there were functionality gaps in the finance system, and it intended to keep Oracle’s R12 financials on premises. That changed.
“Over the last six to eight months, Oracle has released new functionality to where we feel like those gaps will be addressed,” said John Gaffney, the city’s deputy chief financial officer, according to a video — discussion at the Oct. 25 meeting begins at about 2:17 in the video — of a recent city council finance meeting. That meant recommending a full cloud option.
Atlanta City Council members at the meeting didn’t probe the licensing difference. Gaffney, in presenting the savings, told them that “you’ve got lower costs that are primarily driven by your subscription cost being lower. You also don’t have to pay any hosting fees.”
Tanowitz said there were some things about Atlanta’s Oracle ERP Cloud project that were clear; the apparent 10-year agreement with Atlanta, for instance. Vendors have generally been seeking longer terms.
“That piece of it didn’t surprise us,” he said.
The first-year implementation cost for hybrid and full Oracle ERP Cloud were roughly equal, at about $19 million. That figure also wasn’t surprising to Tanowitz because there is a cost to migration. But Tanowitz said he struggles to understand why the on-premises deployment is escalating in cost faster than the full Oracle ERP Cloud deployment.
“If you think about the cloud cost, what are you paying for in a cloud subscription? You’re paying for some intellectual property and you’re paying for some hosting,” said Tanowitz. “That’s what’s under that number, if you peel it apart.”
“Why would an environment that I’m hosting on my own — presumably with the EBS deal — be going up at this rate?” he asked.
There has been a long-standing debate in IT about whether on premises is less costly than full cloud approaches. Frank Scavo, president of Computer Economics, a research firm, said the decision on these approaches can go either way.
“If the data center is underutilized, adding another application may not add much cost,” he said. “But if I need to build a new data center or add significant capacity, it will be much more costly. There is no right answer.”