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

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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. 
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