Early in 2015, artificial-intelligence researchers at Google created an obscure piece of software called TensorFlow. Two years later the tool, which is used in building machine-learning software, underpins many future ambitions of Google and its parent company, Alphabet.
TensorFlow makes it much easier for the company’s engineers to translate new approaches to artificial intelligence into practical code, improving services such as search and the accuracy of speech recognition. But just months after TensorFlow was released to Google’s army of coders, the company also began offering it to the world for free.
Software for everyone
That decision could be seen as altruistic or possibly plain dumb, but nearly two years on, the benefits to Google of its great AI giveaway are increasingly evident. Today TensorFlow is becoming the clear leader among programmers building new things with machine learning. “We have significant usage today, and it’s accelerating,” says Jeff Dean, who led TensorFlow’s design and heads Google’s core artificial-intelligence research group. Once you’ve built something with TensorFlow, you can run it anywhere — but it’s especially easy to transfer it to Google’s cloud platform. The software’s popularity is helping Google fight for a bigger share of the roughly $40 billion (and growing) cloud infrastructure market, where the company lies a distant third behind Amazon and Microsoft.
Maximising the impact
The head of Google’s cloud business, Diane Greene, said in April that she expects to take the top spot within five years, and a core part of Google’s strategy for catching up is to appeal to the sudden enthusiasm about artificial intelligence in industries from health care to autos. Companies investing in the technology are expected to spend heavily with cloud providers to avoid the costs and complexity of building and running AI themselves, just as they pay today for cloud hosting of e-mail and websites. Customers like insurer AXA—which used TensorFlow to make a system that predicts expensive traffic accidents—also get the benefits of the same infrastructure Google uses to power their own products. Google says that means better performance at competitive prices. S. Somasegar, a managing director at venture fund Madrona who was previously head of Microsoft’s developer division, says TensorFlow’s prominence poses a genuine challenge to Google’s cloud rivals. “It’s a fantastic strategy—Google is so far behind in cloud, but they’ve picked an area where they can create a beachhead,” he says. […]