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The Microsoft, UW-Milwaukee partnership aims to get AI into production

This fall, Wisconsin will become Microsoft’s seventh location in the world to build, develop and test artificial intelligence solutions to improve business efficiency.

On May 8, President Joe Biden and Brad Smith, vice chairman and president of Microsoft, visited Racine County to announce the company’s $3.3 billion investment in the state.

“We will use the power of AI to advance the next generation of manufacturing companies, skills and jobs in Wisconsin and across the country,” Smith said during the press conference.

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Microsoft’s investment includes building a data center at the former Foxconn site and creating a new AI Co-Innovation Lab in partnership with UW-Milwaukee’s Connected Systems Institute.

“It will be the first AI Co-Innovation Lab for Microsoft focused strictly on manufacturing,” said Joe Hamann, the institute’s executive director, on WPR’s “Wisconsin Today.”

Hamann calls the new lab a “unique opportunity” for local, regional and national manufacturers, as well as faculty and students at the Connection System Institute, which launched at UWM in 2017.

“There will be a mix of computing activities where the Microsoft Teams and perhaps students and faculty are actually building artificial intelligence models. Those models will be tested and deployed in a production environment,” he said.

According to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, there are more than 9,000 manufacturing companies in the state.

“One of our big goals here at CSI is to give manufacturers the tools they need to properly apply technologies and have a positive impact on their business,” said Hamann. “Microsoft helps the industry partner build a prototype solution that they can implement in their own business.”

Microsoft’s goal is to serve 270 businesses in Wisconsin by 2030, including 135 manufacturing companies. Hamann said manufacturers in Milwaukee and other parts of the state are already showing interest in how they can get involved with the Co-Innovation Lab.

“There are generative AI applications that can be used to proactively look ahead and help manufacturers predict changes and help them optimize their operations more consciously. Plus how they make the product, how materials flow through their factory and how people actually work in the environment,” says Hamann.

According to Hamann, AI is a powerful problem-solving tool that some Wisconsin manufacturers are already using in their business models. He added that other manufacturers don’t know how AI can improve business productivity.

“I’m not an AI expert, but many of us use it for simple productivity gains. Writing emails, preparing reports, etc. helps us get more work done. That will certainly have an impact on industrial manufacturing applications across the state,” he said.

A 2023 report from the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity found that workforce issues top manufacturers’ list of concerns. As Wisconsin’s manufacturing industry moves toward AI solutions, Hamann says the future workforce will need to be trained differently.

“Yesterday’s jobs where I might have worked on an assembly line, where I stood for an eight-hour shift and put two pieces together, now that job can be automated. Now my work is different. Now I need to understand how to program and collect data from the robot,” he said.

As for the timeline for the opening of the new lab, Hamann said CSI’s facility will be renovated in the coming months to accommodate the Microsoft team.

“The timetable for this is yet to be determined,” he said. “We are optimistically looking for a period of four to six months where we can conduct activities in the laboratory.”

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