Microsoft wants to help brands build their own virtual assistants ‘in a matter of minutes’

Microsoft wants to help brands build their own virtual assistants ‘in a matter of minutes’

Microsoft wants to demystify AI and help more brands and marketers integrate it into their daily business processes. That was one of the central themes of an event in San Francisco yesterday in which Microsoft showcased a range of “real world”customer  use cases of artificial intelligence and announced several new AI products and initiatives.

A diverse set of applied AI examples were provided by Adobe, Anheuser-Busch InBev, golf startup Arccos and Walmart.

Making AI tools more accessible. Citing lofty Gartner estimates about the future deployment and organizational value of AI technologies, Microsoft also spoke about the barriers to AI adoption. Again, citing Gartner, Microsoft said that only 4 percent of CIOs have deployed AI technology today and 70 percent of companies lack the internal skills required to do so.

To make AI technologies less intimidating and more accessible to brands, Microsoft announced:

  • Azure Cognitive Services containers: enabling developers to add capabilities “such as object detection, vision recognition, and language understanding—into their applications without having direct AI or data science skills or knowledge.”
  • AI capabilities for Power BI: Microsoft is integrating more machine learning (e.g.,image recognition and text analytics) and the capacity to create machine learning models into the data and analytics visualization platform to better help brands understand their data. The company says that users won’t need to “write a single line of code.”
  • New new neural text-to-speech service: this enables digital speech that is almost “indistinguishable from recordings of people” to help make human interactions with bots and virtual assistants more natural.
  • New conversational AI tools: part of the Azure Bot Service and Microsoft Bot Framework, these promise the capacity to “build an enterprise-grade virtual assistant in a matter of minutes.” The company also announced general availability of Microsoft Bot Framework SDK V4.1 for bot development.

Branded virtual assistants. Microsoft’s bot framework aspires to let companies start building their own fully branded virtual assistants “in minutes.” According to an earlier blog post by Microsoft’s Corporate VP of AI, Lili Cheng:

We strongly believe our customers should own and enrich their customer relationships and insights. Therefore, any virtual assistant provides complete control of the user experience to our customers and partners. The name, voice and personality can be changed to suit the organization’s needs. Our virtual assistant solution accelerator simplifies creation of your own assistant enabling you to get started in minutes.

There are a range of out of the box capabilities with the possibility of extensive customization. These include calendaring, email, point of interest discovery, restaurant booking and others. In September BMW announced a virtual assistant for its cars, which won’t launch until next year. This is built on Microsoft’s open-source conversational AI tools.

This is essentially all the technology behind Cortana being made available to any third party, with the capacity to fully customize the voice and “personality” of the assistant. Given the third place position of Cortana on the consumer side, this is probably the way forward for Microsoft.

Finally, the company also released guidelines for responsible bot and AI development: “The field of conversational AI isn’t new to me or to Microsoft. In fact, I’ve been working on conversational interfaces since 1995 when we developed Comic Chat, a graphical chat service that was embedded in an early version of Internet Explorer. The lessons we’ve learned from those experiences, and from our more recent work with tools such as Cortana and Zo, have helped us shape these guidelines, which we follow in our own efforts to develop responsible and trusted bots.”

Zo was a twitter bot experiment that went awry, spewing controversial and offensive responses to subjects tweeted at it.

What matters to marketers. AI systems and technology will be critical to productivity and competitiveness in the future. But data scientists are in short supply. So Microsoft is wise to try to demystify these capabilities and tools and make them easier to adopt. Microsoft’s moves will force competitors to develop comparable simplification.