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Microsoft aims high with AI — these are its current real-world impacts

After Microsoft's dismal performance in the mobile space and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's admission of abandoning consumers, many Microsoft enthusiasts take the company's grandiose proclamations with a healthy measure of salt. For instance, Cortana, the consumer-facing mascot of the company's AI efforts has endured criticism from Windows Central's Senior Writer Zac Bowden, Xbox Editor Jez Corden and readers due to its shortcomings.

Still, despite Cortana's frustrating limitations, Microsoft's AI efforts are not encapsulated within the parameters of the beleaguered digital assistant. In fact, there's a distinction between AI and digital assistants many overlook. Digital assistants like Cortana use AI technology but are not necessarily artificially intelligent. And AI can be implemented in products and systems without being a digital assistant.

The difference between AI, machine learning and digital assistants

So for those who view Microsoft's AI efforts as beginning and ending with Cortana, we'll explore products and services where Microsoft's AI is having a real-world impact today.

Cortana and Zo

Microsoft AI commercial featuring rapper Common.

Like Google Assistant, Cortana has a search engine backbone, and is also available on all popular platforms. "She" is founded on decades of investments in machine learning, AI, and natural language processing and is able to learn user behavior, interests and more.

Though my exclusive interview with Microsofts Cortana Intelligence Institute's cofounder Ryan White highlights Cortana's next-generation abilities, she's useful (for some) today in her current state.

Zo is an AI chatbot (opens in new tab) that uses machine learning to become smarter and more empathetic over time. This digital companion can be found on Facebook Messanger and Kik.

Bing it on

Bing is Microsoft's biggest AI project, according to Ragan Majumder, the company's product group program manager (see above video). It gleans behavioral, voice and other data from millions of users daily to bolster the system's AI and predictive abilities. This data makes other products like Cortana more capable. Additionally, Bing Predicts uses search, social and other data in conjunction with AI to make predictions about sporting events, reality shows, and more.

Last year Reddit integration expanded Microsoft's AI efforts to make search more natural. Microsoft recently expanded Bing's AI-powered search features related to intelligent image search, word definitions within technical topics and automatically aggregating facts related to a user's search.

Though users aren't "Binging it" as much as they're "Googling," millions are impacted by Microsoft's Bing-driven AI efforts.

Here's why Microsoft is paying me, and will pay you, to use Bing

Office, Teams, Whiteboard and Dynamics 365

Office, the world's de facto productivity suite, is also infused with AI (opens in new tab). Editor in Word provides suggestions, real-time grammar and spelling checks, and more. PowerPoint Designer gives tailored recommendations for high-quality slides. Excel's Maps easily identifies hidden trends. Focused inbox surfaces important emails to the front of the inbox. Office 365 Threat Intelligence scans email content for threats. Microsoft's online presentation tool Sway's ability to suggest layouts, images, design options and more for creative "storytelling" is also powered by AI.

Microsoft Graph aggregates specific interactions between users while collaboration tool Teams features bots, like the T-bot that teaches users how to use Teams and the Who bot that helps users find one another.

Microsoft's Whiteboard uses AI that can create tables, and perfect shapes from a user's poorly hand-drawn attempts. Its integrated AI can also solve math problems that are written onto the digital canvas. And Dynamics 365 improves business processes through AI-driven cloud-based applications that use LinkedIn, customer insights, machine learning and predictive analytics.

If Microsoft is the platform for everything does it need a phone?

Seeing and Hearing AI, smart keyboards and more

Seeing and Hearing AI apps use Microsoft's Cognitive Services to help people with blindness or deafness. The Skype AI-powered real-time translation tool allows people who speak different languages to communicate in real-time.

Windows phone's popular keyboard uses AI-power to learn user behavior and adapt word and emoji suggestions accordingly. And Microsoft Swiftkey is a language-based tool that helps individuals with a range of disabilities.

MyAnalytics uses AI to show users how they're spending their time at work. PowerBI's suite of businesses tools glean data and business insights using AI. Calendar.help uses AI to integrate with Office 365, Google Calendar, Outlook.com and Cortana to improve user efficiency. And MileIQ uses AI to automatically track mileage and categorize drive types.

Microsoft's AI platform is giving people with blindness super powers

Camera tech, photos, and video

Microsoft's Story Remix uses AI.

Microsoft's Windows phone camera app (and those of rivals) detects faces and more using AI. And Microsoft PIX uses AI to choose up to three quality images from a burst of up to 10 photos.

Microsoft's AI-driven camera tech can recognize people, activity and objects and proactively respond to what it sees, using the power of AI and edge computing to merge the real and digital worlds.

Microsoft's photo app creates and arranges new albums and more using power of AI. And Story Remix uses AI to transform pictures, video, 3D content and more using tools like View 3D to create engaging content.

Why Microsoft should have kept investing in AI-driven smartphone camera tech

Microsoft's AI is here

Not all of Microsoft's efforts follow the pattern of its mobile failures. Microsoft is first and foremost a software and platform company focused on providing individuals and business with the tools to do more. AI as a diverse software platform fits perfectly with this successful business model and company identity.

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!

23 Comments
  • No offense Jason but there are still way too many AI powered things that aren't available in all of Microsoft's market; Cortana still lacks a lot of languages, the Bing AI features are US and UK only... That's just my take on things... I don't doubt they are pushing AI to new horizons but they need to get more people to be able to actually use them.
  • Hi Hans, my goal wasn't to say that MS was making a complete and comprehensive AI efforts. I was however trying to expand folks perspective to see AI beyond Cortana and where it is making some impact. I was also candid about Cortana's shortcomings. Also when you say they have to get more people to use them, that hits at the core of the piece. 100s of millions of people are using AI in Office. Bing is a search engine powered by AI and second only to Google and has millions of people are using that daily. Photos, the camera app, etc. In business Microsoft Graph and Dynamics 365 is used by millions, Teams is growing in use, etc. Of course MS want sto grow usage of all of its products, but the point of this piece was to show how people are already using AI in a host of products and may not know it. 🙂
  • Jason,
    I understand your point but still I cannot understand that you (having access to MS) outline not more often the fact that hiding services from non- Anglo Saxon countries is not really helping their (MS) market broadening. 2 Examples: 1) Cortana still does not speak a lot of European languages. 2) The Bing reward system is not offered in most European countries despite the fact 740 million people live in Europe (of which only +/- 60 million in UK - English native speaking).....
  • There are other companies, governments using MS's AI tech. Traffic system, agriculture, wine brewing, water meter / system, etc (alone side with Win10, IOT, Azure, etc). MS's AI tech is not just about Cortana, or translation, or MS-only.
  • Nice overview Jason, thank you.
  • Don't care. Microsoft is not trustworthy where anything consumer facing is concerned. Satya Nadella is a disgrace.
  • Why are you here then?
  • Great article, Jason. MSFT's core values have always been weaved with their products and services, AI is a perfect example as you've noted down a lot of perfect examples here. I think they need a push is all, in the right direction not to mention with a leadership from which they can reap benefits.
  • Lots of blabla like always. In the end they wont be leading in this area. Just like they mess up everything else lately.
  • Being a consumer product first does not mean you're necessarily leading and is not the only way that someone succeeds. Granted I'm done cases is easier but not always the measure of success
  • Agreed. Examples? Initially Nasa did NOTHING in the consumer space but now we have Gore-Tex, Teflon, pocket calculators, micro-chips and a zillion of side products as a fall-out in the consumer space that are only around because of Nasa's drive to push the envelope in technology.
  • I don't know. I find it more than a little sad that it takes this much explaining to figure out how all this AI investment makes any sense whatsoever, except to feed Nadella's hubris. Honestly it's very little ROI on the billions they are investing. I'd rather them fire the entire AI division and bring us Andromeda in 2018. Or at a minimum bring Cortana to the 242 markets that the app store is available in. Or how about write some MS apps to fill the app gap on the store? There's just so very much that they've already left 1/2 baked and unsupported. Why in the world are they moving onto the next shiny object?
  • Just a point of context, AI is a decades-long investment with Microsoft, going back to the Gates era. It's not the next shiny thing, but an investment that is part of the company's basic core. Gates and Ballmer paved the path for Nadella's AI and bots: https://m.windowscentral.com/ai-bots-and-canvases-conversation-part-iii-...
  • Just a point of context, AI is a decades-long investment with Microsoft, going back to the Gates era. It's not the next shiny thing, but an investment that is at company's core.
  • Just a point of context, AI is a decades-long investment with Microsoft, going back to the Gates era. It's not the next shiny thing, but an investment that is at the company's core.
  • What I'm saying is that MS has left a wake of unfinished technologies, initiatives, products behind it. It needs to commit to something and then do it well. And AI infused Whiteboards and MS Office seems like a rather lame thing to commit to. I'd rather see them finish what they started...
    * in mobile with Andromeda
    * in AR with an affordable non-developer version of HoloLens
    * in the App Store by bringing some more quality MS authored apps to it to fill the app gap (e.g. perhaps resurrect MS Money to fill the Personal Finance void). At a minimum show they care as much about their own store as they do about the iOS and Android stores these day.
    * in personal assistants with bringing Cortana to markets other than the US.
    * in Search/Edge with bringing MS Rewards to markets other than the US
    * in the Surface line with an eSim version for Surface Book and Surface Laptop AI infused Office trumps these? I just don't get it!
  • Off-topic, You can still download from MS the 2010 Money Plus Deluxe and Money Plus Home & Business versions and they still work fine if you are willing to upload bank data via csv and / or ofx format or via Pocketsense (for bank account statements downloads). It's free and it works. PS Frontpage still works even in Windows 10 too :-)
  • Just a point of context, AI is a decades-long investment with Microsoft, going back to the Gates era. It's not the next shiny thing, but an investment that is at the company's core.
  • Just a point of context, AI is a decades-long investment with Microsoft, going back to the Gates era. It's not the next shiny thing, but an investment that is at the company's core.
  • Just a point of context, AI is a decades-long investment with Microsoft, going back to the Gates era. It's not the next shiny thing, but an investment that is at the company's core.
  • Just a point of context, AI is a decades-long investment with Microsoft, going back to the Gates era. It's not the next shiny thing, but an investment that is at the company's core.
  • Just a point of context, AI is a decades-long investment with Microsoft, going back to the Gates era. It's not the next shiny thing, but an investment that is at the company's core.
  • Hi Jason, I agree on everything, but... did you try using Bing in Italian? ;-P