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Microsoft, Amazon and UW partner with Japan for AI research and expansion

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: April 10, 2024, 7:44am

The University of Washington and Amazon are partnering with Japanese companies and universities to further innovation of artificial intelligence through a $110 million initiative announced Tuesday.

On the same day, Microsoft announced plans to invest $2.9 billion over the next two years to increase its cloud computing and AI infrastructure in Japan. The Redmond-based tech giant said it will train 3 million people across Japan in AI upskilling in the next three years and open its first Microsoft Research Asia lab there.

The two announcements coincided with a visit by Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to Washington, D.C., where he is expected to discuss AI, space tech and semiconductors with President Joe Biden.

“As economic activities in the digital space increase, it is important for the Japanese industry as a whole to work with global companies like Microsoft that are equipped with a set of digital infrastructure,” Kishida said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

Microsoft said its investment will enable more advanced computing resources in Japan, including its latest graphics processing units, or GPUs. That technology helps speed up “AI workloads,” industry lingo for how quickly the technology can finish tasks.

The $2.9 billion investment will double Microsoft’s existing investments to expand AI and cloud infrastructure in Japan, the company said.

Meanwhile, UW said Tuesday it will partner with the University of Tsukuba in Japan to advance different aspects of the AI industry, from research projects to workforce development to entrepreneurship. Though the specifics of the initiative are still being ironed out, UW expects the funding will go toward research awards, an undergraduate summer research program and an entrepreneurship program.

Jihui Yang, the vice dean for UW’s College of Engineering, expects to get the framework off the ground by the fall.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to do something in the AI area,” Yang said. “Seattle is known to be a tech hub, and Tsukuba is known to be a science city in Japan — it came to be a winning combination.”

The AI initiative includes two cross-Pacific partnerships: one between UW and the University of Tsukuba and another between Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and Keio University.

UW has been allocated $50 million for its partnership, with $25 million of that coming from Amazon and another $25 million from chipmaker Nvidia. With one software company and one hardware company backing the effort, Yang said the “opportunity to leverage all this brain power is just incredible.”

The other $60 million for the partnership between CMU and Keio University is coming from Microsoft and semiconductor company Arm, as well as some Japanese companies, according to a news release from UW.

Microsoft said Tuesday it had committed $10 million to the AI partnership between the two universities and to the University of Tokyo to enhance research collaboration there.

Amazon and Microsoft — among the Seattle area’s largest employers and two of the country’s tech giants — have invested heavily to make a name for themselves in the fiercely competitive AI industry. Microsoft has consistently backed OpenAI, the startup that catapulted generative AI into the public eye when it launched ChatGPT, while Amazon has invested billions in AI startup Anthropic.

The generative AI industry is expected to grow over the next decade, from a $40 billion industry in 2022 to a $1.3 trillion market, according to a report last year from Bloomberg Intelligence.

In January, Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing arm, announced it would invest $15 billion in cloud infrastructure in Japan by 2027.

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Yang, from UW, said AI has become a fundamental part of the university’s engineering curriculum. Students now have to be trained in their engineering discipline — plus AI.

“We’re at the start of a historical moment where AI is changing the way we live,” Yang said.

The collaboration is part of a multiyear effort to strengthen the United States’ business and research partnerships with Japan, according to UW’s announcement. The university has also participated in a partnership focused on workforce development for the semiconductor industry.

“This is an exciting effort that brings together the talents and expertise of cutting-edge, world-class universities,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement Tuesday.

“Advancements in AI are happening at a breakneck pace,” Inslee said. “This collaboration will help provide the research and workforce training for our regions’ tech sectors to keep up with the profound impacts AI is having across every sector of our economy.”