Microsoft’s AI Is Not Just About Being Smart

on December 14, 2016
Reading Time: 5 minutes

On December 13th at a very announcement-packed event in San Francisco, Microsoft shared its views of Artificial Intelligence and the progress it has made thus far.

Back in September, Microsoft created a new AI and research group of about 5,000 people under the leadership of Harry Shum and they have certainly been busy. Microsoft announced several different AI initiatives during the event:

  1. A new chatbot called Zo.ai that is integrated into messenger app Kik
  2. Cortana Devices SDK so Cortana can be on all kind of devices including what looked to be an Echo-like smart speaker manufactured and branded by Harman/Kardon
  3. Calendar.help that has Cortana looped into our email to schedule meetings so she can do it for us
  4. New Calling capabilities for Skype bots and the ability to include rich media
  5. Microsoft Translator Live that lets you have a real time conversation with people who speak different languages.

Some key milestones were also shared at the event:

  1. 67,000 active developers using Microsoft Bot Framework
  2. Chinese Bot Xiaoice and Japanese bot Rinna measure conversation per session that average 23
  3. Record length on an interaction with Zo was nine hours and 53 minutes

The list of achievements is significant but it’s the picture that develops when looking at them in total that really shows how invested Microsoft is in AI.

Microsoft Has Yet to Capitalize on the App Economy but is Making Strides with Bots

Nobody would argue that Microsoft missed the whole “app economy” craze. While Windows Phone caught up with iOS and Android from a technology standpoint, the low market share left developers with little interest in developing for the platform. Universal apps improved the landscape a little, as they allowed developers to maximize their effort by having their apps run on different devices, but the gap is still there.

Microsoft seems to have learned from its mistakes and is making sure it will not be left out of the next craze that is chatbots. Many have talked about chatbots as the next killer app and, while I do not see them as such, there is something to be said for some of the roles played by apps today being replaced by bots. For example, a travel chatbot helping you book your vacation in the same way you currently do through an app. So, while Windows might not have the best travel apps, it will allow users to get the job done through bots.

Long term, bots will certainly make the app gap a non-issue but the transition will not happen overnight and Microsoft needs to ensure users will be engaged on Windows in the first place. Having 67,000 developers actively engaged with the Microsoft Bot Framework is encouraging to see as was the long list of services already taking advantage of the framework. A crucial point Microsoft made during the presentation is the need for these chatbots to be freed from the messenger apps where they now reside. Clearly an easy starting point, given the need to encourage interaction with bots similar to the ones we have with a real human being. Bots need to be free to show up in email, on the web and other places we visit every day. Ultimately, bots need to follow me wherever I might need them.

Amazon and Microsoft Share Their AI Approach and Goal

Microsoft, like Amazon, talked about democratizing AI by allowing everyone to integrate Cortana and Alexa in their devices. This is because both want to be the underlying platform of preference for the AI revolution. Ultimately, the revenue that will be generated by empowering other hardware and services will be so much greater than what homegrown hardware could ever generate. In a way, this is no different than what Microsoft did with Windows and PCs. Windows became the platform for the computing revolution and now the Microsoft Bot Framework and Cortana will become the platform on which the AI revolution will be built. Let’s not forget that AI needs constant feeding of data, constant learning which will come from different use cases, on different devices, in different circumstances.

Conversational AI’s Will Wow Consumers….Eventually

Microsoft also talked about how AI cannot only be about IQ but how, in order to create a true bond between humans and digital assistants or bots, AI needs a strong EQ.

I could not agree more with that philosophy. I have spoken before about how Amazon has been able to create a strong bond with Alexa by just giving her a name while Google, with Google Home, has created a certain distance between user and machine. Personifying your assistant helps create that bond but having an assistant that understand emotions, nuances in vocabulary, tone, expressions – if I can be seen – changes the interaction at its core.

Microsoft, is of course, not alone in wanting to focus on natural language in order to create a conversation. Google has been talking about this very topic when showing off Google Home. Yet today, in most of our interactions, the experience feels quite transactional. I ask a question; I get an answer. If I do not get the right answer, I might ask again but that is pretty much it. This is not really how conversations happen.

Personality is a big part of EQ and, if Microsoft wants to build a true conversational AI, it has to focus on creating personalities for Cortana and its bots but also teach them how to speed-read people so they can adapt that personality.

Zo.ai is the successor to the short-lived Tay.ai experiment. Tay was trying to replicate a millennial and very quickly we were exposed to what happens to a millennial’s personality when social media tries to push some buttons.

I interacted briefly with Zo and I have to admit I was not impressed. In her defense, though, she must have been thrown off by the fact that someone who she clearly thought could be her father – she told me she was 22 and that older men do everything better – was conversing with her. What is important is that each and every interaction we have makes Zo more aware. I see Zo going through a mix of biosensor stimulation and socialization so she can learn to cope with different situations in the future.

Delivering Value Now!

All of this will take time and Microsoft is smart in delivering value now so we, as users, start to build our trust with simple tasks and conversations. Microsoft Translator Live and Calendar.help are two great examples of Microsoft using AI to take pain points away from our day to day lives. Having a three-way live conversation with people who do not share a common language is something that, if you have ever worked on an international team or married someone of a different nationality, you can easily relate to. The nightmare of checking availability to set up a meeting with multiple people is also something many of us have experienced. These might be seen more as tasks but they make a big difference in our lives. For me, it could be as simple as allowing my daughter to have a rich conversation with my mom; something I would see as extremely valuable and would create an immediate reliance on Cortana or whoever else is empowering that experience.

The difficulty I see for Microsoft and other AI players is to make sure users connect the dots and see that bots, assistants,  translators, calendars, maps, and the list goes on, all share a common brain and that to talk about AI is not the same as to talk about a personal assistant.