Get Ready For The Bots: Microsoft Unveils Developer Tools For Apps That Can Have Conversations With Users

For years, Microsoft has provided its developer army with tools to build cutting edge apps, but now it's asking them to try something new.

On Wednesday at Microsoft's Build developer conference in San Francisco, CEO Satya Nadella and his team unveiled new artificial intelligence and machine learning tools that developers can use to build "bots," or apps that users interact with via natural speech as opposed to text input.

Bots are the basis of what Nadella is calling Microsoft's new push into "conversation as a platform," which includes natural language processing technology built into Azure, Office 365 and Windows. Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant, introduced two years ago, is one example of a bot, but Nadella's vision goes far beyond that.

"We want to take the power of human language and apply it to more pervasive computing interfaces and interactions," Nadella said during a keynote speech at the conference.

At Build, Microsoft unveiled a set of tools called the Microsoft Bot Framework, which developers can use to create bots that can have a dialog with users. It's part of Microsoft's Cortana Intelligence Suite, a set of technologies that run on Azure and were previously known as Cortana Analytics Suite.

The Microsoft Bot Framework lets developers connect their bots to a variety of different platforms, with Skype and Outlook being among the first to include conversational capabilities.

Microsoft also debuted its Cognitive Services set of machine learning tools, previously known as Project Oxford, which includes 22 APIs covering areas like speech and image recognition, along with language, knowledge and search capabilities.

Nadella said developers will be able to build bots that handle specific tasks like ordering a pizza, calling a taxi, booking an airline ticket or buying movie tickets. And these won't just be text-based bots; Microsoft also envisions animated bots that use video and holograms.

"As developers, we think this represents a huge opportunity for you to write new types of apps," said Nadella in the keynote. "We want to empower all our developers to do this new work."

Andrew Brust, senior director, market strategy and intelligence at Datameer, a San Francisco-based data analytics vendor, described the Microsoft Bot Framework as "substantive and intriguing," though he said he's not sure if developers will flock to it right away.

"On the one hand, saying 'OK everyone, start writing bots!' seems a bit naïve, and I don’t predict anything like a wildfire adoption pattern. But the demos [at Build] were substantive, and intriguing," said Brust.

"For most of the last 20 years, I have been trying to get developers to get excited about business intelligence, analytics and data mining, and it’s always been very difficult," Brust said. "But the Bot Framework seems to make it a very low-friction task for developers to embed true machine learning technology in their apps, without even realizing that’s what they’re doing."

In Nadella's vision of the future, human language is the new user interface layer, bots are the new apps, and digital assistants are the new web browsers.

To get there, Microsoft has been developing machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies that 'teach' computers to learn human language and carry on actual conversations. This includes teaching computers context about people, places and things so they can be helpful with everyday business and personal tasks, said Nadella.

Above all, Microsoft wants the artificial intelligence and machine learning technology that powers the coming wave of bots to attract more users to its software platforms.

"We need to build technology so that more people can use technology," Nadella said. "And we want to build technology that gets the best of humanity, and not the worst."

Nadella said the Tay artificial intelligence chatbot, which Microsoft shut down last week after it fired off a series of racist messages on Twitter, needs more work. "We quickly realized [Tay] was not up to this mark, so we're back to the drawing board."

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