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Conversations As A Platform: Microsoft’s Vision Of People, Bots And Digital Assistants

Among the many announcements here at Microsoft’s Build developer conference in San Francisco, the company spent a significant amount of time with a concept it called “conversation as platform,” which it believes will introduce human language and machine intelligence as the next computing interface. Cortana lies at the heart of this expansive initiative, but it will require artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the use of bots that can appear in your everyday computing experiences, especially where your conversations happen.

To enable this, Microsoft is introducing a variety of tools, including the Microsoft Bot Framework and Skype Bot tools for developers, as well as Cognitive Services APIs. These are new additions to Microsoft's Cortana Intelligence Suite, which is a big data and machine learning initiative built on Microsoft's Azure cloud.

Partially, and in more tangible terms, Microsoft is enhancing Cortana and making the digital assistant available in more places, including in Skype (available starting today). Microsoft also announced Skype for HoloLens. All of this, including the developer tools and client apps, are available starting today as previews, Microsoft said, although the Skype clients for all platforms are available now.

There’s much to digest here, and most of it is futuristic and depends heavily on the ecosystem of developers here at Build. We’ll try to break down just a few of the key facets and some examples. Also, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who spoke frequently and at length about this concept, stressed the need for security and transparency in a world where personal digital assistants are interacting with bots and application processes (he speculated that bots would become the “new applications”) on your behalf. This context-aware assistance is based on deeper and deeper understanding of your behaviors and preferences, as well as context, both of the real world and of your specific conversations.

Nadella proclaimed that this didn’t have to be man versus machine, but rather instead man with machine.

Cortana Everywhere

First, Cortana. Microsoft wants to infuse the personal assistant into all devices (it runs not just on Windows of course) and be part of many applications. For example, Cortana will now be a part of Outlook, able to look at your email and calendar (with your permission) and understand situational context in messages. Talk about a meeting, and Cortana can potentially schedule it for you. Talk about a flight, and Cortana can put it on the calendar. Talk about a task you promised to accomplish, and Cortana can get involved, finding and sending documents on your behalf. Get a taxi receipt via email, and Cortana can put it in your Microsoft Expense app.

And so on, including accomplishing some of these tasks on, or in conjunction with, Android and iOS running Cortana. As other apps also get Cortana integration, Cortana can begin to broker the interactions. Microsoft showed a couple of examples, one of which was Just Eat, a food pick up/delivery app that populated as an option in conjunction with a calendar appointment at lunch time. (That is, Cortana can see that you're planning to lunch with a friend in a specific area and will offer up a suggestion for a restaurant to try.) These functions are called Proactive Actions, and developers are getting an invitation for a preview. 

The Conversation Canvas

Microsoft sees many of these digital assistant and bot entities finding their way into our normal communication tools, like Skype, SMS, WeChat, Slack and email. Because Skype belongs to Microsoft, most of its demonstrations focused here. For example, in one Skype interaction, Microsoft demonstrated a video message (with transcript of the video underneath it, created automatically using Skype Translate). As part of the dialog--a boss' congratulatory message--a bot kicked in from a local cupcake merchant asking for permission to extract the user's location and make a delivery. It even offered an estimated delivery time.

There were more impressive examples, including interacting with bots to book a hotel room at a Westin in Ireland, but the point is that Microsoft envisions Skype and similar tools as a “conversation canvas,” and it envisions developers working with the Skype Bot SDK to make it happen.

As part of the Bot Framework tools, Microsoft also demonstrated how developers can use a built in semantic dictionary to begin enabling natural language rules into their apps (er, bots). There will be a host of tools that allow developers to make their bots smarter through machine learning over time.

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Cognitive Services

Microsoft also announced a series of APIs (22 of them) as part of its Cognitive Services. These APIs are built around more general intelligence services (vision, speech, search, contextual knowledge and so on) that developers can build into their applications. Microsoft demonstrated some incredible early applications of this, such as the ability to take a picture and have it recognize the objects in it, but also to build information about the image using what it called CaptionBot.

In one demonstration, Microsoft showed off what it called CRIS, or custom recognition intelligence service, and compared a speech-to-text translation of a child speaking. Naturally, its analysis showed a much higher precision of interpretation based on its knowledge of child speech patterns.

Microsoft said that Cortana is involved in a million conversations each day. It's hard to know how many Cortana iOS or Android installs there have been, or how people are using it, but its growth, along with services like Google Now and Apple's Siri, show some semblance of customer interest. Microsoft demonstrated today that it is trying to move beyond the neat parlor tricks of a voice-based search engine.

Fritz Nelson is the Editor-In-Chief of Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Follow us on Facebook, Google+, RSS, Twitter and YouTube.