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What’s new in blockchain, AI and IoT: April 14-20, 2017

Following are highlights from the past week’s news developments in blockchain, artificial intelligence and Internet-of-Things technologies:

EU to kick off blockchain observatory effort
The European Commission on April 18 announced it plans to seek a service contract to set up an observatory and forum focused on blockchain and distributed ledger technologies. With a two-year budget of €500,000, the observatory would provide an up-to-date overview of blockchain initiatives around the world, explore possible EU use cases, develop expertise on regulatory challenges and other issues, and “build and animate a platform for the European blockchain community.”

IDC: Cognitive, AI spending expected to hit $12.5B in 2017
In a recent update, the analyst organization IDC predicted that global spending on cognitive and artificial intelligence systems will rise to $12.5 billion this year, a 59.3 percent increase over 2016 figures. “Cognitive/AI systems are quickly becoming a key part of IT infrastructure and all enterprises need to understand and plan for the adoption and use of these technologies in their organizations,” said David Schubmehl, IDC’s research director for cognitive systems and content analytics.

Microsoft launches IoT Central SaaS offering
Microsoft on April 20 launched Microsoft IoT Central for customers that want to offer Internet of Things solutions without the need for expertise in cloud applications management. “Built on the Azure cloud, Microsoft IoT Central simplifies the development process and makes it easy and fast for customers to get started, making digital transformation more accessible to everyone,” Azure IoT partner director Sam George wrote in a blog post.

New paper explores blockchain for ‘smart contracts’ in insurance
The London-based law firm of Pinsent Masons on April 20 published a paper with the firm Applied Blockchain that explores the use of blockchain, distributed ledger technologies and smart contracts in the insurance sector. “The concept of a ‘smart contract’ is an intriguing one for lawyers — at one end of the spectrum the discussion is about artificial intelligence replacing all of the aspects of drafting, whilst at the other, it could be used simply as a means of executing payment obligations and actions conditional on payment,” Pinsent Masons partner Tim Roughton said in a news announcement about the paper’s publication. “But that said, smart contracts can offer real benefits to the insurance industry including simplification, automation, increased standardisation and electronic execution.”

Microsoft adds new AI capabilities to SQL Server, Cognitive Services
During its online Data Amp event on April 19, Microsoft announced several new AI products designed to help businesses improve their customer service, launch new offerings and boost efficiency. They include a preview release of SQL Server 2017, which Microsoft described as the first relational database management system with built-in AI. Other new products featuring AI capabilities include Microsoft R Server 9.1 and three new tools for Microsoft Cognitive Services: the facial recognition Face API, the Computer Vision API and the Content Moderator machine assistant for easier reviewing of text and images.

IIoT expected to have major impacts, though not quite yet
Just a handful of the 350 global executives recently surveyed by the BPI Network believe they have “a clear vision” of how to implement the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) in their organizations. The survey, summarized in a report titled “The Impact of Connectedness on Competitiveness,” found that 41 percent of executives expect the IIoT to have a significant or major impact on their industries over the next three years, but that 1.5 percent said they had a clear vision that has already set implementation in motion.

Malta aims to ‘be on frontline’ of blockchain adoption
Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on April 20 described plans to promote his country as a fintech innovator through the adoption of blockchain technology. According to a report in Malta Today, Muscat told attendees of a conference on new economic growth areas for Malta, “We must be on the frontline in embracing this crucial innovation, and we cannot just wait for others to take action and copy them. We must be the ones that others copy.”

Amazon makes its Lex AI tech available to all AWS customers
Amazon on April 19 said it would be making its Amazon Lex AI service, which powers the Amazon Alexa intelligent assistant, available to all of its AWS cloud services customers. “We thought customers might be excited to use the same technology that powers Alexa to build conversational apps, but we’ve been blown away by the customer response to our preview,” said Raju Gulabani, Amazon’s vice president for databases, analytics and AI. Among the companies already using the Lex technology are the American Heart Association, Capital One, Liberty Mutual, NASA and Vonage.

IBM, Harman, JBL, AMX unveil ‘cognitive rooms’ for healthcare, business, hospitality
Working with Harman AKG microphones, JBL speakers and AMX AV systems, IBM on April 19 unveiled a combination of technologies for “voice-enabled cognitive rooms.” Designed to bring “highly connected” experiences to healthcare, business and hospitality sites, the cognitive rooms feature soundbars and alarms clocks that can interact with occupants using natural language. By connecting to IBM’s Watson cloud and IoT services, these rooms can answer users’ questions and control sound and video systems by voice commands. “We’re solving a very distinct problem in hotel, hospital and conference rooms, where people experience unfamiliar environments yet need to perform very simple tasks, such as changing room temperature, adjusting the lighting, opening the blinds, initiating conference calls or launching a presentation,” said Kevin Morrison, senior vice president of enterprise solutions for Harman Professional Solutions.

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