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Microsoft tries to increase its artificial intelligence

Robotic hand, accessing on laptop, the virtual world of information. Concept of artificial intelligence and replacement of humans by machines.

Software giant Microsoft has continued its diversification drive with the launch of a bunch of clever things loosely grouped into the artificial intelligence silo.

While Microsoft had a slight fall from grace during the late 90s and 00s with the rise of more millennial-friendly technologies, its recent surge in the cloud computing market has put the giant firmly back in the top division. Cloud computing has positioned the vendor as a must-have for numerous CIOs around the world, and now the team are looking towards one of the next major technology booms to fuel further growth; artificial intelligence.

There are a number of players throughout the industry who are making moves in the potentially lucrative AI industry, though Microsoft looks to be one which has the strongest footing. True, Google’s Deepmind and IBM’s Watson have arguably made more progress in the AI arena, though Microsoft’s current penetration into the world of enterprise technology gives it a notable advantage, even if it is playing catch-up on the AI side of things.

Earlier this year, JP Morgan released research which highlighted Microsoft was the most important vendor to CIOs, beating back competition from the likes of SAP, AWS and Google. The primary reason for this was the breadth of services; through cloud, hardware, social, databases, Office365, Skype and other offerings, Microsoft has infiltrated almost every aspect of the IT portfolio. Considering the intention of CEO Satya Nadella is to seemingly integrate AI into all Microsoft’s offerings, it has a significant opportunity to leapfrog Google and IBM due to the fact Microsoft kit and software is everywhere.

This is the basis of the conversational cloud strategy which Nadella is seemingly pinning his hopes of to dominate the enterprise technology space one again. Except the Microsoft team are wording it slightly differently, its ‘democratizing artificial intelligence’. This week has seen the launch of a number of new AI features which makes this plan a reality.

Firstly, Calendar.help. This is a relatively simple idea, but one which could turn out to be a favourite. The basic idea is to take an AI solution which can look into the calendars of all the individuals who are invited to a meeting, and then make a decision on the timing and location which works best for all involved. It removes the back and forth emails which can be immensely frustrating. It’s also a very simple idea, and the best ones usually are.

Secondly, the team has also introduced an in-person machine translation technology, developed by the machine translation group at Microsoft’s research lab in Redmond, which it claims can deliver live, in-person speech translation capabilities via Internet-connected smartphones, tablets and personal computers. It’s a challenge to the Google Translate tool, which has also been beefed up with AI capabilities, though one which has numerous opportunities especially for small businesses around the world who focus on tourism.

Thirdly, Zo has been unveiled as the company’s latest attempt at a chatbot, and let’s hope there is a bit more success that the Tay attempt (which failed hilariously). Zo is currently available on Kik, with plans to expand to Facebook and Skype in the coming months, and the team claim it has cracked the emotional barrier.

“Zo is built using the vast social content of the Internet,” the team said on the official blog. “She learns from human interactions to respond emotionally and intelligently, providing a unique viewpoint, along with manners and emotional expressions. But she also has strong checks and balances in place to protect her from exploitation.”

The success of this bot remains to be seen, though should the team have found the formula to emotion, context and genuinely unique responses, this could be a major breakthrough in the development of AI. Such a breakthrough could be revolutionary for customer experience, many of whom become frustrated at the waiting times and inaction when contacting customer call centres. An AI chatbot which could make appropriate decisions, while also creating the feeling of compassion would be an interesting step forward.

The team is also having a crack at taking on Amazon in the home-based virtual assistant market, announcing it is opening up Cortana to third-party hardware companies so they can integrate it into hardware devices like speakers, cars and home appliances. Whether the consumer market is truly ready for home-based virtual assistants remains to be seen, though like Amazon, Microsoft has a strong enough and trusted brand in the consumer world to have a good go.

The first example of Microsoft AI in the home will be Cortana-enabled speaker made by Harman Kardon, which will be available in 2017, though it hasn’t mentioned a specific date. Developers will be able to develop ‘skills’ for Cortana, enabling the AI to control various different products around the home once launched. In theory, Cortana could select built a playlist, dim lights, have a look what’s in your fridge, while also making suggestions about what to watch on TV.

The Cortana Skills kit is a bit wider ranging however. This is very much an open platform for developers to create new experiences through all Microsoft AI platforms, whether in the home, on mobile or in the workplace.

“The Cortana Skills Kit will allow developers to leverage bots created with the Microsoft Bot Framework and publish them to Cortana as a new skill, to integrate their web services as skills and to repurpose code from their existing Alexa skills to create Cortana skills,” the team said on another official blog. “It will connect users to skills when users ask, and proactively present skills to users in the appropriate context. And it will help developers personalize their experiences by leveraging Cortana’s understanding of users’ preferences and context, based on user permissions.”

It’s a lot to swallow to start with, but it’s a clear message from the Microsoft team that AI is going to be the engine of growth for the company’s next era.

Microsoft may not be dominating any specific segments currently, though its breadth and depth of services has made the organization invaluable to CIOs. As mentioned before, it may be playing catch-up in the world of AI development, though there are few companies who can compete with the Microsoft machine when it comes to enterprise penetration currently.


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