Sunday 4 December 2016

Ok, computer? Artificial intelligence robots set to become 'future of customer service', reveal Microsoft

Adrian Weckler in San Francisco

Published 30/03/2016 | 20:27

Satya Nadella, chief executive, Microsoft
Satya Nadella, chief executive, Microsoft

Online artificial intelligence bots are set to dominate customer service in the near future, according to a new vision unveiled by Microsoft.

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At its Build developers’ conference in San Francisco, the software giant showcased new tools to help companies build and customise artificial intelligence systems online to help with everything from ordering a pizza to booking a hotel room.

Brian Roper, Microsoft executive
Brian Roper, Microsoft executive

MIcrosoft Skype executive Lilian Rincon demonstrated a booking made with a bot from the Westin Hotel in Dublin within Skype. She then showed how the bot could delve into her messages to organise a reunion with a Dublin-based friend.

So-called chatbots are not new in customer service. But as part of its new ‘Converstions As A Platform’ initiative, Microsoft wants to give developers the tools to make more advanced bots that can work with natural language.

Lilian Rincon, Skype executive
Lilian Rincon, Skype executive

The new bots will be capable of integration into a number of platforms, including email, the web, Slack, Skype and Telegram.

The company also announced that universal apps for Facebook, Instagram and Messenger are coming to Windows. The move is designed to ameliorate Microsoft’s apps deficit and show other companies that it is possible to release apps for Microsoft devices without getting bogged down in smaller, niche platforms. Microsoft is currently stuck in a vicious circle where big services such as Snapchat, YouTube and banking apps won’t develop versions for Windows devices because of low market share. This ‘app gap’, in turn, has contributed to a decline in Windows Phone devices being sold around the world.

Microsoft also announced a unified store for its hardware devices and that it is introducing its voice assistant Cortana to the Xbox One gaming console. The Xbox One will also be capable of becoming a developers’ tool, the company announced.

Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella said that over 5bn questions have been aksed of Cortana and that the Windows Store receives 5bn monthly visits.

Microsoft also announced that its augmented reality headset, Hololens, is shipping to developers for $3,000. This augmented reality headset differs from virtual reality in that it lets the wearer see virtual 3D images within their real life environment. The company has not yet said when the machine will be sold to consumers. But it did demonstrate a number of applications for Hololens, including anatomy apps for university students and assembly aids for large machine manufacturers.

Last week, Microsoft showed off a future messaging system using the Hololens called ‘Holoportation’, which lets users communicate and play back 3D hologram messages.

The technology resembles a cross between the hologram messaging systems in Star Wars and Minority Report. In a demonstration of the technology, Microsoft Research developer Shahram Izadi held a hologram conversation with a colleague and then with his four-year-old daughter. Both appear in front of him as he is wearing the Hololens headset.

Mr Izadi was then able to play back the conversation, like a voicemail recording, watching his interaction with the person he’s talking to. He was also able to change the size of the participants when he plays the conversation back, like Tom Cruise does in the film Minority Report.

The Microsoft Build event continues today and tomorrow in San Francisco.

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