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Game

Sega and Microsoft Form a Next-Gen Technology Alliance

Microsoft and Sega are joining forces on a “strategic alliance.” According to a new press release from Sega, the two companies are teaming up to explore joint ventures focused on a new generation of gaming. However, Microsoft has not acquired Sega, as it did with Bethesda.

In the release, Sega president and Chief Operating Officer Yukio Sugino describes the effort as “(a) strategic alliance that explores ways for Sega to produce large-scale, global games in a next-generation development environment built on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.” This means SEGA is working with Microsoft to venture into larger titles utilizing Microsoft’s cloud, potentially indicating a giant project on the way from both companies.

Sugino also mentions a new initiative for developing new and innovative titles that it has dubbed “Super Game.” This initiative focuses on games with themes of global, online, community, and IP utilization. According to Sugino, SEGA and Microsoft are looking to further evolve gaming areas like network infrastructure and communication with a next-gen platform.

Sarah Bond, Microsoft’s corporate vice presdent, also commented on the new partnership in the press release. She said that part of Microsoft’s role in this new partnership is to advance its game development, with an aim of having its titles enjoyed by fans around the world. Bond also said that Microsoft aims “to build an alliance that utilizes both SEGA’s powerful game-development capabilities and Microsoft’s cutting-edge technology and development environment.”

Based on the press release, it seems that Microsoft and Sega could have something big in store that may be the next major innovation in the new gaming generation. We’ll just have to wait and see just what that is.

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Game

Dungeons & Dragons Dark Alliance cross-platform on day 1: Xbox, desktop, streaming

Today Dungeons & Dragons Dark Alliance was announced as an Xbox Game Pass game at launch. This means that, all told, the game will launch on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Windows 10 PC, and on every platform supported with Xbox Cloud Gaming (Beta) through Xbox Game Pass. It’ll all be happening on June 22, 2021 – and it’ll all be cross-platform cross-play on day 1, launch day.

The game has the brand name backing. It’s Dungeons & Dragons – everyone knows the name. It has the graphics, and it has the backing of Wizards of the Coast and Microsoft. It’s developed by the folks at Tuque, and it looks like it could be pretty fantastic. Now all we need is confirmation that it’s going to go the distance.

It’s difficult to create a game like this when so many other big-name games already occupy the space. New games aren’t as safe a bet as expansions for old games, especially now that we’ve got games that have the ability to be launched and re-launched on new platforms. Here with Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, it would seem that the heart and soul of decades of fantasy gameplay are ready to do business.

The Dungeons & Dragons game Dark Alliance is a third-person action brawler that “drops you and your friends into the unforgiving frozen hellscape of Icewind Dale to take on iconic Dungeons & Dragons monsters and collect epic loot.” This game can be played “on your own,” but as Jeff Hattem, Head of Studio & Creative Director, Tuque Games suggests, “with the addition of cross play on PC and Xbox featuring up to 4-player co-op, why would you?”

And yes, this is the first Dungeons & Dragons Dark Alliance game in nearly 20 years. Cross your fingers this means we’re ready to stay in this realm for 20 more.

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Game

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance gets a surprise re-release this week

Earlier this year, Wizard of the Coast announced that it’s returning to the Dark Alliance series after almost two decades. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and its sequel were originally released for Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube back in the early 2000s, and though this new Dark Alliance game will swap out the Baldur’s Gate name in exchange for Dungeons & Dragons branding, it’ll still offer similar action RPG gameplay. Before Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance launches in June, however, it seems we’ll be revisiting the past.

Today, Interplay, Black Isle, and Wizards of the Coast announced a re-release of the original Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance title. The game was revealed by way of a new trailer that was published by IGN, which also has a few sparse details about it as well. It seems to be a relatively bare-bones re-release, though it does support up to 4K resolution to make it play nice with modern day consoles.

Aside from that support for widescreen resolutions, don’t expect anything in the way of graphics or gameplay updates. The visuals depicted in the trailer are very clearly old school graphics, and IGN’s article makes it clear that this is simply a re-release with support for higher resolutions, not a remaster or a remake.

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is something of anomaly among action RPGs, because it’s one of the few that was a console-only title. With this re-release, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is coming to PC for the first time, but unfortunately, those of us on PC (and mobile) will have to wait until a later date to play it.

Those of you on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch don’t have long to wait for Dark Alliance to arrive, as it’ll be launching tomorrow, May 7th, with news about the PC and mobile release coming at a later date. It’ll be $29.99 when it launches, so we’ll definitely be paying a bit of premium for this trip down memory lane, especially when you consider that the game has mostly been left untouched in this jump to modern platforms.

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AI

Nvidia forms Inception VC Alliance to connect AI startups with venture capital

Nvidia has formed its Inception VC Alliance to connect AI startups with venture capital. The move will help connect more than 7,500 startups in the company’s Inception program for AI tech with venture capital firms.

Jeff Herbst, vice president of business development and head of Inception at Nvidia, unveiled the alliance today at the AI Day for VCs event during Nvidia’s annual GTC 21 conference. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang unveiled the company’s latest products on Monday in a keynote speech where he talked about the company’s new Grace central processing unit (CPU).

“We always felt a very strong connection to the ecosystem. We give them technology, we introduce them to our 150 different software development kits, we give them joint marketing, we introduce them to investors,” Herbst said in an interview with VentureBeat. “We give them Cloud Credits. We give them discounts for GPUs.”

Above: Nvidia’s Jeff Herbst (top left) leads a panel on AI startups at GTC 21.

Image Credit: Nvidia

AI adoption is growing across industries, and startup funding has been booming. Investment in AI companies increased 52% last year to $52.1 billion, according to PitchBook. The Inception AI startups are up 9 times from 2016, Herbst said.

The alliance aims to help investment firms identify and support leading AI startups early, as part of their effort to realize meaningful returns down the line. The goal is to educate VCs about AI opportunities and nurture startups, Herbst said.

Above: Inception has more than 7,500 AI startups.

Image Credit: Nvidia

“AI is growing like a weed. We’re over 7500 companies, and it’s not going to be long before we’ve doubled that,” he said. “The ecosystem is clearly exploding. And VCs are a super important part of it. Startups need VCs, and VCs need startups. It’s just that simple fuel for startups to grow. We have thousands of VCs that are already part of our ecosystem, but we’ve never formalized the partnership with them until now.”

Founding members of the alliance include venture firms NEA, Acrew, Mayfield, Madrona Venture Group, In-Q-Tel, Pitango, Vanedge Capital, and Our Crowd. More VCs can apply here.

Above: Nvidia’s Inception AI startups by industry.

Image Credit: Nvidia

The Nvidia Inception VC Alliance is part of the Nvidia Inception program, an acceleration platform for startups working in AI, data science, and HPC. These startups represent every major industry and are located in more than 90 countries.

Among its benefits, the alliance offers VCs exclusive access to high-profile events, visibility into top startups actively raising funds, and access to growth resources for portfolio companies.

“It’s both a corporate goal and a personal goal to extend this ecosystem around the world,” Herbst said.

Above: Nvidia’s Inception AI startups are from the green countries.

Image Credit: Nvidia

Nvidia currently counts about 40 companies it has invested in directly. Around 300 Inception companies are making presentations at the GTC 21 event, which is expected to have an online audience of about 150,000. And around 35 of the startups are in emerging markets, Herbst said.

“Is there parity in the world with AI startups? No,” Lopez Research analyst Maribel Lopez said on the panel. “Do we have a long way to go? Yes. But I’m seeing exciting things like Cuda, a fintech startup in microfinance in Africa.”

These startups are using AI for a wide range of tasks, like figuring out what percentage of fisheries in the world are operating illegally.

“Now that Jensen has shown the roadmap, people know that Nvidia is a complete platform, with CPUs, GPUs, DPUs, and everything that enables these startups to do their life’s work.”

Above: Nvidia’s Inception AI startups over the years.

Image Credit: Nvidia

On Monday, Herbst moderated a panel on investing in startups around the globe and the need to create a more diverse ecosystem for entrepreneurs. He estimated there are 12,000 to 15,000 AI startups around the world and said Nvidia is only in touch with about half of them through Inception.

“It’s an open invitation to join our ecosystem,” Herbst said. “Nvidia loves startups.”

Herbst said about 16% of Inception members are part of the health care industry. Growth areas include robotics, self-driving cars and trucks, and data science.

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Game

We’re getting a new Dungeons & Dragons Dark Alliance game after nearly 20 years

The early-to-mid 2000s were an interesting time for the world of gaming. With systems like the GameCube, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 further closing the gap between consoles and PC in terms of 3D rendering capabilities, we saw several PC game series make the jump to console. Baldur’s Gate was one such series, although the console games that carried the name looked a lot different from the computer RPGs we saw around the turn of the century.

We’re talking, of course, about Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and its sequel, which were action RPGs more in line with Diablo than they were with Baldur’s Gate proper. Dark Alliance 2 released on PlayStation 2 and Xbox way back in 2004, and now, nearly 20 years later, we’re getting a new installment in the long-dormant series.

This time around, the game has dropped the Baldur’s Gate branding and has picked up more the broad Dungeons & Dragons name. Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, as it’s officially called, keeps the action RPG gameplay of its predecessors (with up to four player co-op this time around) but moves the camera from the isometric angle we saw in the first two games to a third-person perspective. You can check out some gameplay from the title – featuring none other than Drizzt Do’Urden – in the trailer embedded above.

The game is being made by Wizards of the Coast subsidiary Tuque Games and will be published by Wizards itself. The game will be available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC. In a press release today, Wizards of the Coast said that those who purchase the game on PlayStation 4 will receive a download code to upgrade to the PlayStation 5 version, while those who purchase on Xbox consoles will only need to buy the game once to get it for both Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S.

Dark Alliance is up for pre-order today for $39.99, though there are also Digital Deluxe and physical Steelbook Editions available for $59.99 each that come with an expansion called Echoes of the Blood War and a Lich Weapon Set. Dark Alliance is out on June 22nd, so release is only a few months out. There’s no doubt we’ll be hearing more about Dark Alliance soon, so stay tuned.

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AI

Band of AI startups launch ‘rebel alliance’ for interoperability

More than 20 AI startups have banded together to create the AI Infrastructure Alliance in order to build a software and hardware stack for machine learning and adopt common standards. The alliance brings together companies like Algorithmia; Determined AI, which works with deep learning; data monitoring startup WhyLabs; and Pachyderm, a data science company that raised $16 million last year in a round led by M12, formerly Microsoft Ventures. A spokesperson for the alliance said partner organizations have raised about $200 million in funding from investors.

Dan Jeffries, chief tech evangelist at Pachyderm, will serve as director of the alliance. He said the group began to form from conversations that started over a year ago. Participants include a number of companies whose founders have experience running systems at scale within Big Tech companies. For example, WhyLabs CEO and cofounder Alessya Visnjic worked on fixing machine learning issues at Amazon, and Jeffries previously worked with machine learning at Red Hat.

But in a conversation with VentureBeat, Jeffries referred to the endeavor for small to medium-size businesses in AI as a “rebel alliance against the empire” that will serve as an alternative to offerings from Big Tech cloud providers, which he characterized as “building an infrastructure just to lock you in.”

“Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with a big proprietary tool if you’re all in, but a true canonical stack is one that’s portable across environments,” he said. “To become part of a truly foundational stack of the future, you’ve got to run in multiple environments. And you’ve got to play nice with others in the sandbox, and you have to have interoperability in that market.”

“Not everyone in the group will survive. But we’ve talked about this. Like we’re in this Cambrian explosion period, and the Alliance at this point, it will serve where we are in the adoption curve. Some of these companies will go away or fold into whoever the eventual winner is,” he said.

The alliance initially plans to focus on things like small partnerships between developers working on tools and frameworks, facilitating joint documentation, and creating test software for integration. How to eliminate bias in algorithms before being deployed will not be considered as part of what Jeffries refers to as the canonical stack.

Examples of alliances formed in the AI space to tackle include the Open Source Neural Exchange (ONNX), created by Facebook and Microsoft in 2017, and open source projects like MLFlow, TensorFlow, and Apache Spark, which cofounders of Determined AI contributed to while at UC Berkeley.

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AI

Avaya expands its alliance with Google for AI for contact centers

Avaya has extended the capabilities of its contact center platforms to include an enhanced version of Google Cloud Dialogflow CX that can be employed to create virtual agents infused with AI capabilities that can verbally interact with customers.

Residing on the Contact Center AI (CCAI) cloud service provided by Google, the conversational AI capabilities being provided by Avaya are enabled using an instance of the service dubbed Avaya AI Virtual Agent Enhanced. In collaboration with Google, the company has optimized that offering for its enterprise customers to provide, for example, barge-in and live agent handoff capabilities, said Eric Rossman, vice president of technology partners and alliance for Avaya.

Earlier this week, Google also announced the general availability of its Dialogflow service within the Google CCAI platform.

While Avaya has a long-standing alliance with Google, the CCAI service is only one of several AI platforms that Avaya has integrated into its contact center platforms, said Rossman. In some cases, those services are complementary to each other. In other cases, the end customer has decided it prefers one AI service over another, noted Rossman. But, he added, in all cases, organizations are trying to move beyond the simple bots that are now widely employed across web sites.

He said that regardless of the AI platform selected, Avaya is dedicating engineering resources to both optimizing those platforms and building its own AI models to automate a wide range of processes. Avaya machine learning algorithms, for example, can be applied to Google Cloud CCAI to determine the next best action for an agent. Google Cloud Insights, combined with Avaya AI, uses natural language to identify call patterns as well as generate sentiment analysis.

Avaya AI Virtual Agent Enhanced is being embedded within the Avaya OneCloud CCaaS and OneCloud CPaaS offerings. The latter is a platform-as-service (PaaS) environment for building applications on top of the core contact center-as-a-service (CCaaS). Those offerings can be deployed on a public cloud, a private cloud, or across a hybrid cloud as IT organizations best see fit. Overall, Avaya claims more than 16 million agents currently access contact center platforms.

Interest in virtual agents enabled by AI that could be employed to augment customer service spiked in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rossman said. With more people working from home to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of service and support calls made to organizations increased dramatically, he added. At the same time, most customer service representatives were working from home. Virtual agents enabled by AI provide a means to offload many of those calls. “The supply of agents was limited,” said Rossman.

Of course, the use cases where a virtual agent that has speech capabilities need to be carefully considered, said Rossman. One of the things that distinguishes Avaya is that it makes available a professional services team to work with the end customers on where and how to employ virtual agents, he said.

As AI continues to evolve, organizations will need to make a classic “build versus buy” decision. Google, along with IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon Web Services (AWS), are all making available AI services that can be consumed via an application programming interface (API). Alternatively, some organizations will decide to invest in building their own AI models to automate a specific task. In the case of virtual agents, Avaya is trying to strike a balance between both approaches, depending on the use case.

Naturally, not every end customer will want to engage with a virtual agent any more than they did an interactive voice response system (IVR). However, for every customer that prefers to speak to a human, there is another that would just as soon have their issue resolved without having to wait for a customer service representative to be actually available. In many cases, the interaction with virtual agents may lead to an engagement with a human representative that has been informed of the issue at hand by the virtual agent. The younger the customer, the more willing they tend to be to rely on a virtual agent, but as always, there are never any absolutes when it comes to customer service.

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AI

World Economic Forum launches global alliance to speed trustworthy AI adoption

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is launching the Global AI Action Alliance today, with more than 100 organizations participating at launch. The steering committee includes business leaders like IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, multinational organizations like the OECD and UNESCO, and worker group representatives like International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow.

The Global AI Action Alliance is paid for by $40 million in grant funding from the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation to support AI and data projects.

Much good can be done with AI, said WEF AI and ML director at the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Kay Firth-Butterfield, but she cautioned that the technology needs a good governance foundation to garner and maintain public trust.

“It is our expectation that these projects will explore the frontiers of social challenges that can be solved by AI and through experimentation shape the development of new AI technologies. The Foundation is also committing to supply direct data services to global nonprofits to create exemplar organizations poised to capture the benefits of AI for the people and planet they serve,” Patrick J. McGovern Foundation president Vilas Dhar told VentureBeat.

As part of that effort, the group will support organizations promoting AI governance and amplify influential AI ethics frameworks and research. This support is needed to bolster AI ethics work that can often be fragmented or suffer from a lack of exposure.

The Global AI Action Alliance is the latest initiative from the World Economic Forum, following the creation of a Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In 2019, the World Economic Forum created the Global AI Council with participation from individuals like Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Microsoft VP Brad Smith to steer WEF AI activity.

Government officials working with the WEF previously created one of the first known guidelines to help people within public agencies weigh risk associated with acquiring AI services from private market vendors. Additional resources include work with a New Zealand government official to reconsider the role of regulation in the age of AI.

AI regulation is not just imperative to protect against systemic discrimination. Unregulated AI is also a threat to the survival of democracy itself at a time when the institution is under attack in countries like Brazil, India, the Philippines, and the United States. Last fall, former European Parliament member Marietje Schaake argued in favor of creating a global alliance to reclaim power from Big Tech firms and champion democracy.

“As a representative of civil society, we prioritize creating spaces for shared decision making, rather than corralling the behavior of tech companies. Alliances like GAIA serve the interests of democracy, restructuring the power dynamic between the elite and the marginalized by bringing them together around one table,” Dhar said.

In related news, earlier this week VentureBeat detailed how the OECD formed a task force dedicated to creating metrics to help nation-states understand how much AI compute they need.

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