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Microsoft and TikTok parent ByteDance are teaming up on AI. Should we run for the hills?

  • Mike Pearl

What are these two juggernauts building in there?

The KubeRay project is supposed to help power AI software that uses distributed computing to perform heavy-duty computations by spreading the work across multiple systems. It’s not the first project of its kind, nor is it even the first built on Ray, an open-source python platform. What makes KubeRay notable is that it’s a collaboration between two current tech superpowers: Microsoft and TikTok’s parent company ByteDance.

Microsoft is of course huge, second only to Apple in market capitalization. ByteDance is smaller, but has the rare distinction of being a Chinese software company with enough penetration into English language pop culture as to be almost totally ubiquitous, with its black box algorithm now driving major news coverage.

Also, in an odd 2020 tech story mostly lost amid the dire reports on COVID and the presidential election, the Trump White House stepped in when Microsoft sought to take over certain US operations for TikTok. This was after Trump had been the one seeking to force TikTok out of the country in the first place.

So they’re big, powerful, and have a shared grudge. Now they also have a shared AI project. Microsoft devotes massive amounts of research money to AI, and has its own AI data process platform, Azure. TikTok employs machine learning in its recommendation algorithm, and a more public-facing example of AI on TikTok is a rudimentary text-to-image generator it rolled out a few weeks ago.

But the new project sounds—and may well be—fairly anodyne. Ray projects are meant to reduce the local workloads necessary to carry out operations like deep learning and model training. As an open-source framework, Ray is designed to take an order for data that may have been cooked up on a laptop, and distribute it to a cluster of collaborating, Ray-linked processors. There’s enough demand for such a platform lately that Ray has caught on, and even has its own annual convention of sorts known as Ray Summit.

It was at 2022’s summit in August that ByteDance and Microsoft announced their team-up. As reported by CNBC, two Seattle-based software engineers, Jiaxin Shan of ByteDance, and Ali Kanso of Microsoft, “have been working for like a year on an open-source project,” according to Kanso, who added that he and Shan, “collaborate every week.”

Their collaborative product, KubeRay, funnels the distributed computing power of Ray into the Google-created automation orchestration software Kubernetes, aka “K8s,” which provides an API for applications running on clusters of hosts. According to its GitHub page, it’s designed to have a “Data Scientist centric workspace for fast prototyping (incubating).”

For the most part Microsoft has evolved into a largely institutional and boring company, but ByteDance attracts the sort of high-profile attention Microsoft used to receive from the Bill Clinton White House when it was slapped with an unsuccessful antitrust suit back in the 1990s. Earlier this summer, Trump-appointed FCC commissioner Brendan Carr tweeted out an open letter about the dangers of TikTok—mostly harping somewhat vaguely on its connections to the Chinese Communist Party, but also attacking its, “surreptitious data practices.”

As an open-source project announced publicly, news about KubeRay doesn’t read like the creation of a backdoor that puts everyone’s data at risk. Still, this announcement is like finding out that Godzilla and Mothra are becoming best friends. And if you live much of your life in the digital sphere, then you essentially live in a Tokyo high-rise. It would be wise to at least pay attention to what these giants are doing.