I can’t decide which is more popular right now – artificial intelligence or augmented reality. I think there are more advancements being made in artificial intelligence, while augmented reality continues to be developed, but at a much more slow rate. Regardless, both are incredible technologies that will push us into the future. So when I heard that Microsoft was buying a startup that develops conversational AI, I wasn’t surprised. Microsoft is buying Semantic Machines, a Berkeley, California based startup. This, of course, is in a bid to improve their voice assistant – Cortana. This is a big win for Microsoft because Semantic Machines’ team includes some serious talent in this particular area. Some of its members have worked on the core systems that powered Google Now, and Siri. Also, some are from speech recognition software company Nuance Communications. So, like I said – pretty big talent.
As I mentioned earlier, AI is really starting to take off. Which means, this acquisition is coming at a really good time. What would our world be if it wasn’t for smart speakers or intelligent mobile assistants? And we wouldn’t have any of these things if it wasn’t for artificial intelligence. With the technology that Semantic Machines is building, Cortana could get better at asking and answering follow-up questions, remembering information you’ve shared earlier, building context by rifling through your profile and carrying out several functions in sequence after receiving detailed instructions from a human.
We most recently saw how Google intends to use artificial intelligence in the future, through Google Duplex. If you don’t remember, or haven’t heard, this technology will let the Google Assistant make a phone call on your behalf to complete tasks like scheduling an appointment. The AI interacts with a human. Giving times that you’re available, based on your calendar. Google is certainly ahead when it comes to this particular feature. But overall Amazon’s Alexa is winning when it comes to smart speakers.
Speaking of Alexa – Amazon is also building up its library of Skills in order to work with a wide range of third-party apps, services, and hardware. Earlier in the month, Amazon outlined several new capabilities that will be rolling out to Alexa users. Soon, Alexa will be able to remember information that you tell her. Like – “Alexa, remember that George’s birthday is May 23”. In addition, you will be able to ask Alexa follow-up questions. If you say “Alexa, how is the weather in New York City”, and then ask “What about this weekend?”.
But it doesn’t stop there. Amazon is rolling out the ability for Alexa users to automatically find, enable and launch skills using natural phrases and requests. Alexa will use machine learning to carry out those tasks. The example the company gives is of a person asking Alexa how to remove an oil stain from a shirt. The query has normally been met with a response like, “Sorry, I don’t know that one.” With Skills Arbitration, however, Alexa instead discovered the Tide Stain Remover skill and recited instructions on how to remove the stain.
What does this have to do with Cortana? Well, this just demonstrates the kind of competition that’s out there, so it makes sense that Microsoft is pushing for this technology. It will be interesting to see if Semantic Machines can help Microsoft improve Cortana so it’s more widely used on Windows devices. Also, does this acquisition mean that Microsoft will be getting into the smart speaker business? It’s thought that the company is designing one, but what that will look like remains to be seen at this point.