Satya Nadella bets the future on AI

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Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, speaking at the Build conference in San Francisco on March 30, 2016. Credit: Microsoft/IDGNS

In a rousing keynote, Microsoft's CEO introduces the Microsoft Bot Framework and several new Cognitive Services

It should come as no surprise that Satya Nadella put Cortana and AI at the center of his Microsoft Build 2016 keynote outlining Microsoft’s future strategy. Two years ago, in his first letter to Microsoft employees, he identified machine learning as a key technology pillar that would enable a future where “computing will become even more ubiquitous and intelligence will become ambient.“

The big news from Microsoft Build is that Nadella is banking on “conversations as a platform” -- basically, advanced natural language processing -- and the new class of application Microsoft calls the "bot." Yes, an embarrassing episode has already occurred with the Twitter chat bot, Tay, which was taught racist palaver by mischievous users, but at least the incident demonstrated that bots actually learn.

Microsoft officially introduced the Microsoft Bot Framework today as part of the Cortana Intelligence Suite, formerly known as the Cortana Analytics Suite. On stage, as part of introducing the new Skype Bot Platform, a demo showed how a bot can augment a Skype conversation and pick up key terms related to travel to suggest hotel reservations and so on. In another demo, a Domino’s bot helped with a pizza order.

In other words, although Nadella’s keynote was forward-looking, this stuff appears to be pretty far along. We’ve known for a while that AI is at a tipping point: Huge amounts of compute power in the cloud plus unprecedented quantities of data have breathed new life into old AI algorithms.

Microsoft is pouring huge resources into this area. A catalog of 21 API-accessible Cognitive Services was announced today, approximately half of which were introduced with Project Oxford. You’ll find everything from an Emotion API to a Speaker Recognition API, complete with pricing.

The key question for users is one of expectations. Machine intelligence in applications is not new -- predictive text is a prime example. It works well most of the time, but when it doesn’t, it’s infuriating.

Now Nadella is talking about making a new set of AI capabilities accessible to developers all over the place. On the one hand, this is hugely exciting because everyone knows that AI represents the next phase of computing. On the other, you know we’re about to encounter “intelligent” bots that will annoy the hell out of us.

Is Nadella’s big bet premature? Actually, he’s following the model that has been pushing technology at such an accelerated pace: Throw capabilities to developers and we see what emerges over time. Some of the results will make you cringe. Others will make you realize we've entered a new era.

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