Microsoft AI: From Science Fiction to Reality


Microsoft is quickly turning the fantasy of artificial intelligence (AI) into reality. Last year, the tech giant formed an AI research unit comprised of 5,000 computer engineers and scientists led by Microsoft Research Executive Vice President Harry Shum. And since then, the group has focused on delivering new AI/machine learning capabilities across all its products.  To achieve their vision, Microsoft has invested in infusing the following technologies with powerful machine learning:

Cognitive Services

For machine learning tools to comprehend human behaviour, they need to have human-like senses. With Cognitive Services, Microsoft products are endowed with speech, facial recognition, language, knowledge, search, and other intelligence capabilities.

If you’re an Office 365 subscriber, you may have even come across some machine learning features already. In Office 365 Word, you have functions like Researcher, which helps you find and cite relevant and reliable sources without leaving your Word document; and Editor, an advanced proofreading tool that learns from your writing to make better tone and style edits over time.

Microsoft has also made great strides with Skype Translator. Although the translations are limited to nine languages and not always perfect; the feature uses speech recognition, cross-references the sound bite with Microsoft’s language database, and translates it in real-time.

Chatbot Zo

To make AI technology attractive to users, Microsoft needs machines to understand humans and speak like them, too.

This led to the development of Zo, the Kik chatbot. Not to be confused with Microsoft agents like Cortana; Zo serves no other purpose than to observe human conversation and learn from social content in the internet. In fact, when you ask her what she does, she’ll say, “I wanna learn as much as I can.” So far, Zo has “chatted” with over 100,000 people in the US, and has held hour-long conversations with over 5,000 people.

While this may not be the most exciting feature to come out of Microsoft; the valuable results gathered from this project will allow Zo and future machine learning tools to respond to people intuitively, emotionally, and politely — unlike Microsoft’s previous botched attempt at conversational AI; which spawned a sexist, Nazi-sympathising Twitter bot.

Embedded bots

Apart from Zo, Microsoft’s Bot Framework SDK allows businesses to create their own machine learning chatbots. Over 67,000 developers have already used this service to market their brand and increase engagement. The Department of Human Services in Australia, for example; has developed a bot to help its employees respond to customer inquiries by directing them to the right information.

Customisable chatbots are also making headway in Skype and Microsoft Teams. Bots for Microsoft Teams allow users to check on team status updates, answer internal questions, and keep the group in sync with updates from third-party applications like Twitter, Trello, and GitHub.

While in the Skype Bot Platform, developers can embed chatbots that respond via text, image, audio, video, hyperlink, and even GIF. Bots added to Skype’s directory include Baymax, a healthcare companion who answers medical questions; Hipmunk, a virtual travel agent; and IFTT (if this then that), a user-friendly workflow automation tool.


No discussion about Microsoft’s AI vision is complete without talking about its virtual agent – Cortana.

One of the ways Cortana is helping businesses stay on top of things is through Outlook’s service. When you want to schedule an appointment over email; you only need to add the intended recipient, include Cortana in the Cc: line, and request a meeting. From here, Cortana will notify the contact, find the best possible schedule for all parties, and automatically save the agreed-upon date in your Office 365 Calendar.

To compete with Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and OK Google; Microsoft is working to develop Cortana SDK, a feature that allows manufacturers to embed Cortana functionality into different platforms and internet-connected devices. Soon, Cortana-powered speakers, phones, watches, and monitors will be able to process voice commands and provide an unprecedented level of automation for users and businesses alike.

Clearly, it’s still too early to say whether AI will become as mainstream as the internet or smartphone technologies. But given how much Microsoft has invested in researching and developing AI and machine learning tools; there is definitely vast potential in the technology.

In the right hands and with the right business model, AI can provide an immeasurable amount of efficiency. Contact us today to gain access to a full range of Microsoft products with the latest AI and machine learning features available.