Build 2016: Microsoft envisions a future where Cortana and a legion of smart bots act as our butlers

Simmer down, Ray Kurzweil. If Microsoft’s Satya Nadella has his way, there will be no Singularity in the future – where humanity uploads its consciousness into a mass, computer-backed intelligence – nor a murderous scene straight from the Terminator. “Ultimately,” Nadella said, “It’s not going to be man versus machines. It’s going to be man with machines.”

Nadella made the grand pronouncement during Wednesday’s introduction of Microsoft’s new 'Conversations as a Platform; philosophy – basically, the idea that the mixture of machine learning and natural language will alter the way computing behaves going forward, as we interact with personal digital assistants and legions of bots to help us organise our lives. Read also: Soon every computer, appliance and vehicle will have a conversational UI (just like Barbie)

Ordering food should be as simple as sending a text message; having Cortana juggle your appointments and suggest changes should be accomplished with a simple verbal conversation using natural language. And that cloud-augmented knowledge should travel with you anywhere there’s a web connection, rather than being locked down to particular devices.

Bots and assistants, data swirling around everywhere, tapping into centralized servers filled with information distilled to be relevant to you, powered by machine learning. While we’re still in the early days yet, Nadella says this shift could be as major for computing as the introduction of graphical interfaces, the birth of the Web, and the rise of mobile and touch.

Conversations as a Platform is built around three basic philosophies, Nadella said:

  • Human language is the new UI
  • Bots are the new apps; digital assistants are meta apps
  • Intelligence infused into all interactions

In the end, Microsoft envisions machine learning being able to help people talk to other people with minimal hassle (such as Skype smartly suggesting you meet with a friend when you’re visiting a faraway town), people talking to personal assistants like Cortana, and people talking to purpose-specific bots. The company even wants your digital assistant to talk directly to third-party bots and serve as organisational butlers.

In order to pull this off, these bots and assistants require tons of data about you, specifically, and the world in general. “We need to teach [these bots] about broad context – people, places, things,” Nadella said. “And we need to teach them about your personal preferences.”

Microsoft’s already fueling the machine learning fires with Skype Translator and Microsoft Hololens, Nadella, said, and you can see the fruits of that labor in Windows 10’s Cortana digital assistant, which will be learning some powerful new tricks soon. Skype will also receive updates in the future that add Cortana’s machine learning, and the Skype mobile apps are receiving an update on Wednesday that allows users to chat with video bots created by developers.

In a demo designed to show off Conversation as a Platform’s potential, Lilian Rincon, Skype’s principal group program manager, showed Cortana integration in the app. The assistant automatically suggested connecting to a Westin Hotel bot – drawing on Rincon’s preference for Westin hotels – which helped her set up a reservation directly within Skype. After that, Cortana recognized that the town Rincon was visiting was near a friend, and asked if Rincon wanted to arrange a meeting. It was all seamless and took mere minutes – pretty damned handy.

Microsoft is introducing a new Cortana Intelligence Suite, Cognitive Services APIs, and the Microsoft Bot Framework so developers can tap into to bolster the Conversations as a Platform experience, but of course, there’s a dark side to bots and machine learning. Just last week, Microsoft released Tay, a “millennial chatbot,” on Twitter, and the Internet succeeded in turning Tay into a racist bigot in less than a day.

“We quickly realized [Tay] is not up to the mark,” Nadella said. He said the company was retuning the bot. “We want to build it so it learns the best of humanity – not the worst.”

Here’s hoping the company is successful. Not just because Conversations as a Platform sounds like a cool idea, but because if these bots manage to assimilate our nastiest behavior and continue spitting out pro-Nazi propaganda, Skynet could still very well become reality.

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