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Microsoft Goes All In on AI

Humans have always had a complicated relationship with new “technologies.”

From awe to fear, centuries ago, Plato even worried that writing would adversely affect people’s memories.

Modernity has had a particular curiosity regarding artificial intelligence (AI). From Terminator-style killer robots to emotive humanoids, the mention of AI brings to mind the many silver screen renderings of some future civilization.

More likely than any of these, however, is the reality that AI will probably turn out to be another commonplace technology that, while novel at first, will end up integrated into our everyday lives.

Tay Gone Wild

Despite all the speculations, technology hasn’t been able to deliver on AI just yet.

In March of this year, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) introduced the first chatbot, in an effort to beat its competitors to the punch.

While they intended to show off the advancements in AI and machine learning, instead, Tay (short for Thinking About You) quickly went off course.

The Verge described Tay as, essentially a “robot parrot with an internet connection.” Twitter users were able to converse with Tay and, effectively, teach it anything they wanted, regardless of fact or opinion. Tay was, therefore, able to evolve, and as it chatted with more people, it would have more material to regurgitate.

Of course, this simplistic echoing ability was quickly taken advantage of. Within 24 hours of its release, the Twittersphere taught Tay to be an obnoxious, foul-mouthed bigot.

Microsoft quickly pulled Tay offline for “some adjustments.”

Then, the company briefly brought Tay back online. It immediately began tweeting about drug use and harassing police, and then began spamming its Twitter followers with persistent tweets. Again, Tay was pulled offline and has yet to resurface.

Not yet, at least.

Microsoft Goes All In on AI

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is staking the future of the company on AI, as well as a whole array of chatbots, digital assistants, and intelligent agents.

The company that missed the mobile computing and smartphone revolution believes it has found the next big thing in tech – voice-based personal devices. Microsoft is hoping for a win with this new focus, whereas Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Alphabet Inc. (GOOG) are dominating sales in smartphones and apps.

At a recent developer conference, Nadella explained that, if Microsoft succeeds in developing AI, in the future, “Human language is the new UI [user interface], bots are the new apps, digital assistants are like… the new browsers, and intelligence is infused into all your interactions.”

This is Nadella’s first new and very bold idea as CEO of Microsoft.

But he isn’t alone in his belief that the future lies in speech-based digital assistants. Fellow tech titan Alphabet is also moving into AI. As the owners of Google, they’re said to have already begun working on a bot-based app.

Amazon Echo

Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) is also making an attempt at AI.

The company is placing a renewed emphasis on its artificial intelligence service Alexa by expanding the number of devices than can utilize its interactive abilities. Alexa, launched in late 2014, now boasts over 300 capabilities.

Unlike Apple’s Siri, Alexa is an open platform, in which developers from outside of Amazon can work with it as a platform in an effort to keep it evolving. In fact, Amazon is enticing such developers to get involved with its $100 million Alexa fund, which awards grants to Alexa-related projects.

The company’s first products to use Alexa were the Fire TV and the Echo. The latter, as discussed by our Senior Technology Analyst, Greg Miller, is a personal assistant that recognizes and understands the voice of its user and can control much of your household, depending on the allotted settings.

Now, Amazon has released two more devices that will also use Alexa – the Echo Dot (a smaller version of Echo) and the Amazon Tap, a portable speaker and microphone.

The company’s Vice President David Limp echoed (pardon the pun) Microsoft’s sentiment when he told the Financial Times, “We believe the next big platform is voice.”

Limp went on to say that Amazon is trying to, in effect, build a computer inside the cloud that’s completely controlled by voice.

Brave New World?

There are obstacles, of course, to this new world order as envisioned by Microsoft and Amazon.

It took years for the smartphone to truly permeate society. And smartphone users, like simple, one-function apps, will have to be re-educated into using a do-it-all personal assistant.

While this shouldn’t be too trying, as such technologies tend to see an over eager public, ready to consume them, having chatbots interfacing with the public may take longer.

Besides all of the risks associated with AI in television and movies – i.e., world domination – the AI will have to be “taught” to ignore internet “trolls” and only react and learn from true interactions with well-intentioned users.

Microsoft’s experience with the Chinese and Japanese versions of Tay – Xiaoice and Rinnan – do, however, prove that this isn’t impossible. Users of each utilized the chatbots very differently than U.S. users and the results were extremely positive. In fact, there are still 40 million users of Xiaoice in China.

Xiaoice and Rinnan didn’t go rogue because they weren’t inundated with rubbish from their interactions with actual humans. Obvious cultural differences between Asia and the U.S. allowed them a certain level of respect that was, clearly, absent in the use of Tay.

So, while it may take a bit longer, especially here in the U.S., for chatbots to become as commonplace as smartphones, Microsoft’s vision for AI integration may not be a plotline for the “future” much longer.

Good investing,

Tim Maverick

Tim Maverick

, Senior Correspondent

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