For those who have just "tuned into" the tech scene, the bot and AI future we're now entering may appear to be a new revolution fueled by the "me too" efforts of established companies and start-ups alike. This assumption would be an error. The industry has been moving toward this goal for decades. In fact, the technology has only recently caught up with the tech dreams of those who came before us.
Investments in machine learning, natural language processing and deep neural networks have finally begun yielding the fruit where artificial intelligent sidekicks that know us and can act proactively on our behalf seems well within reach. Though many companies have invested in, advocated for and applied these technologies in their products through the years, Microsoft has been one of the earliest and most deeply invested leaders in the industry.
A vision forward
Cortana is now extensible to what Microsoft refers to as "experts", or bots that developers build to engage users as proactive, intelligent apps. As part of Microsoft's Conversations as a Canvas strategy, Cortana is, in essence, a cross-platform "platform" that can benefit from the large Android and iOS install base.
Cortana, Microsoft' evolving cloud-based, device agnostic, intelligent agent has long been in the making. And even now we are only glimpsing the coalescing of the fundamental variables that Redmond is working to materialize into a ubiquitous intelligence that unifies the entirety of a user's digital experiences. These efforts began under the tenure of Microsoft's first and second CEO's Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer respectively.
As Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt but not into the Promised Land, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer heralded the investments that have brought Microsoft to the border of a new age in personal computing. As Joshua inherited the charge of his predecessor and led Israel into Canaan, Redmond's current chief executive, Satya Nadella, is leading Microsoft into the age of AI and bots.
Though Nadella is at the helm during this pivotal transition, we mustn't forget those who brought the company to this point.
Bill opens the gates
Microsoft's first CEO Bill Gates was a visionary. His dream to put a computer on every desk and in every home was ultimately a means to bring Microsoft's personal computing environment to the masses. And it was largely achieved.
The present age of personal computing that is not bound to the desk required an evolution of the strategy to bring Microsoft's brand of personal computing to the masses. A personal computing environment that has the benefit of a consistently connected internet, is not bound to a single device and has access to a vast repository of information required an intelligent UI to help users manage digital experiences in such a dynamic environment. This advancement is a tremendous evolution to the ill-fated Microsoft Bob which was introduced over 20 years ago.
In the video below Gates expounds on the utility of Microsoft Bob but also foreshadows a more advanced AI to come.
Years later Gates expressed a vision of an intelligent agent that would be personal, present and deeply integrated into a user's life. It would be wholly consistent with the modern and mobile state of personal computing:
Though many Windows Phone fans, myself included, initially hoped that Cortana would never go cross-platform, her venturing to iOS and Android coupled with her deeper integration within Microsoft's other services are key to Microsoft's vision for the AI. Microsoft does not view Cortana as a Microsoft-ecosystem-focused AI, but more of a boundless platform for intelligent interaction with all digital experiences.
Ballmer kept the ball rolling
Steve Ballmer succeeded Bill Gates as CEO of Microsoft in 2000. Though Ballmer's leadership style differed from that of his predecessor, the goal of bringing an ever-present intelligent agent to the masses remained.
During his tenure investments in the foundational technologies required to make the dream a reality continued. Steve Ballmer articulated the following description of his and Microsoft's AI vision in a July 11th, 2013 memo:
Ballmer expanded on the all-encompassing nature of a ubiquitous cloud intelligence by sharing Microsoft's vision of a family of first-party devices that this intelligence and the Windows platform would unify. We saw the fruit of this vision two years later on October, 6 2015 during Microsoft's Windows 10 Devices Event.
Reflecting on Ballmer's vision
Reflected in Ballmer's statements is Microsoft's commitment to the duo user by providing a portfolio of partner and first-party devices which are useful all day for work or play. These devices would be connected by an intelligent cloud and common UI. Ballmer's reference to the company's intelligent agent indicated that it would be user-focused and would know and support the user in both professional and personal settings.
This duo user focus is an important point when we consider that computing has moved to the cloud, and that Redmond's hardware is purposefully context sensitive easily transitioning between professional and personal productivity. Microsoft envisions a bot-connected Cortana that effortlessly flows with a user across services, and devices growing through the rich content of user's experiences and data gleaned from the system. The systems intelligence would mature and become more proficient at anticipating and serving a user's needs.
Naturally, the success of a company's endeavors doesn't rest solely in the plans of its leaders. Scores of talented individuals are required to bring those dreams to fruition. Time and space will not allow us to acknowledge all who have contributed and are contributing to bringing Microsoft's AI vision to fruition. However, we've "heard" the broad overarching views of previous leaders. Let's now listen to the voices of some of those who have helped and are helping that vision to materialize.
Larry Heck talks Microsoft's AI tech
Larry Heck is currently a Principal Scientist with Google Research. Before joining the Mountain View company, as a Microsoft employee, Heck was credited with starting the conversational-understanding (CU) personal-assistant effort at Microsoft in 2009.
Prior to his current post he worked on a technology vision for virtual personal digital assistants for the Bing research and development team. At the request of Zig Serafin, who was appointed by Ballmer to unify Microsoft's speech efforts across the company, Heck joined his team as the chief scientist. Through this position, Heck and the team began building the plan that later evolved into what (or who) we know as Cortana.
Heck had this to say in an April 2014 interview about the current state of digital assistants:
It is interesting to see how two years after these statements we see how Cortana can be interacted with via Microsoft's new inking platform in addition to the standard speech and text interactions that are available.
AI's basic fundamentals according to Heck
According to Heck, "The base technologies for a virtual personal assistant include speech recognition, semantic/natural language processing, dialogue modeling between human and machines, and spoken-language generation" and "each area has in it a number of research problems that Microsoft Research has addressed over the years. In fact, we've pioneered efforts in each of those areas", he says.
Heck continues with emphasizing the long history Microsoft has in these critical areas of natural language processing, machine learning, deep learning and deep neural networks:
Microsoft's years of investment in this increasingly competitive space has helped prepare the company for the challenges it will face in its quest to emerge as the leader in AI and bots.
Mike Calcagno and Larry Heck talk Microsoft's AI advantage
Mike Calcagno, Director of Engineering for Bing experiences joined Larry Heck in an interview where we, through the conversation get a clear picture of the strategic advantage Microsoft brings to AI and bots. As a result of its various tools and services such as Bing and Skype, Microsoft has a wide net through which the company can feed data back into the system to continually improve upon it. Heck explains:
These varied points of data input provide Microsoft with a unique resource to help evolve its AI. Calcagno also stressed that Microsoft recognizes the usefulness of both Siri and Google Now but Microsoft's goal was not to make Cortana a "knock off" either of its rivals.
Long road ahead
Microsoft has a long history in machine learning, natural language processing, and deep neural networks. This history coupled with widely used cross-platform tools and services which consistently glean human language data from users and reintroduces it into the system positions Microsoft efforts at the front of the AI race. Redmond's Bot Framework and Conversation Canvases also positions Microsoft's ecosystem as the developer's platform or "devbox" for intelligent apps or bots.
Finally, Cortana, unlike her competitors, as a Conversation Canvas agent, is being positioned as an unbounded intelligent platform to complete computing functions independent of a user's device or operating system. She is slowly evolving into Microsoft's vision of an intelligent cloud-based UI that will know users, and as a meta-app interacting with bots, anticipate and facilitate a user's needs.
Admittedly we are at the very early stages of this journey. As a parent joyfully (and fearfully) celebrates the transition of their child from infancy to the first day of school, we are celebrating the transitioning of Microsoft's AI and machine learning efforts into the mainstream. Still, as with a child in kindergarten, there remains a very long road ahead.
So as we watch Cortana's evolution, take the time now and then to revisit these visionary statements from those who came before. Yes, there is competition from the likes of Google, Viv and even Apple within its closed ecosystem. But taking a look back every so often will help us see just how this ambitious effort, which began many years ago, is materializing within an increasingly competitive space.
Back in 2014 Windows Phone fans went bananas for Cortana! What do u think now?☺She's... https://t.co/0WfbCRwWNtBack in 2014 Windows Phone fans went bananas for Cortana! What do u think now?☺She's... https://t.co/0WfbCRwWNt— Jason L Ward (@JLTechWord) August 13, 2016August 13, 2016
So what are your thoughts? Is Microsoft on course with its AI vision which it set forth years ago? Does competition from rivals require a shift in plans? Is Microsoft's industry-wide platform play too broad? Does it dampen the uniqueness of Microsoft's ecosystem? Sound off in comments and on Twitter!
If you missed parts I or II or these related pieces check them out here!
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Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!