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Actionable news in GOOGL: GOOGLE Inc CLASS A,

Google Sprints Ahead in AI Building Blocks, Leaving Rivals Wary

  • Internet giant’s free TensorFlow is a hit with developers
  • Some companies use Torch software standard as ‘counterpoint’

There’s a high-stakes race under way in Silicon Valley to develop software that makes it easy to weave artificial intelligence technology into almost everything, and Google has sprinted into the lead.

Google computer scientists including Jeff Dean and Greg Corrado built software called TensorFlow, which simplifies the programming of key systems that underpin artificial intelligence. That helps Google make its products smarter and more responsive. It’s important for other companies too because the software makes it dramatically easier to create computer programs that learn and improve automatically. What’s more, Google gives it away.

But for some competitors, there’s a big downside to adopting Google’s standard. Using TensorFlow will help Google recruit more AI experts by training them on the same tool it uses internally, spotting their code, and hiring the best contributors. It could also let the search-engine provider exert outsize influence over the burgeoning AI ecosystem. If the internet giant dominates in this field, it could gain an advantage in the fast-growing cloud-computing business, turning the popularity of its software into real revenue.

"It’s the next big area, and people are worried Google’s going to own the show," said Ed Lazowska, a computer science professor at the University of Washington who has served on the technical advisory board of Microsoft Corp.’s research lab. "There is a network effect, and it’s a really excellent system."

Google initially used TensorFlow internally for products like its Inbox and Photos apps. The company made it available for free in November. Technology companies like Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. rushed to give away their own versions, hoping to get the most outside developers using their standards.

The company that wins will benefit from the collective efforts of thousands of developers using, but also updating and improving, its system. That’s an advantage when it comes time to make money from the new asset. Whoever has the most popular software will have the best chance of creating commercial cloud services for AI because potential customers will already know how to use it.

Amazon and Samsung declined to comment. Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Success in these types of open-source projects sometimes yields big rewards. Google released Android for free in 2008, and it’s now the most widely used mobile operating system with...


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