Microsoft on Wednesday announced new artificial intelligence
features and functionality for several of its flagship products and
services, including Office 365, Cortana and Bing, at an event in San
Francisco. Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and
Research, demonstrated some of the new capabilities
Building on the progress the company has made in integrating AI over
the past year, the new enhancements are designed to help users perform
increasingly complex and complicated tasks.
“AI has come a long way in the ability to find information, but
making sense of that information is the real challenge,” said Kristina
Behr, a partner design and planning program manager with Microsoft’s
Artificial Intelligence and Research group.
One of the advances, machine reading comprehension, will improve an
AI-based system’s understanding of context — for example, recognizing
that one’s cousin is a family member.
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Bing users will get more personalized answers, Microsoft said, such as
restaurant recommendations based on travel destinations, or a greater
variety of answers to offer different perspectives on a topic.
AI guidance might help users figure out the exact questions they want
to ask if their search queries are too vague to deliver meaningful
Bing will utilize visual search as a way to help people seek
information about items or objects in photos. This functionality will
comprise the use of object recognition along with machine reading
An Office AI
Microsoft announced improvements in AI integration with its Office 365
tools as well. The spreadsheet program Excel, for example, will employ
machine learning as a way to analyze data and predict trends via pivot
tables and charts. The new AI tools also will be able to extract
insights from smaller sets of data.
Importantly, use of the new AI functionality won’t require more
advanced training in Excel for users to determine which sets of data
should be used to gain deeper insights.
More Conscious Cortana
Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana will get an upgrade as well,
allowing it to make use of machine reading comprehension to summarize
search results. Cortana also will be able to sort through a user’s
emails to identify the most important ones and even read them aloud
during a commute, for example. Use of that functionality will extend to
emails from multiple accounts, including on competing services such as
Cortana also has been enhanced with “skills chaining,” allowing it to
suggest additions to one’s calendar after tickets have been booked, for
These AI advances likely will be subtle and may go unnoticed by many users.
“AI will creep more and more into our lives,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.
“Ideally it will help to make tools like Bing, Cortana and Office 365 more userful,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“This is the good AI, not the Terminator AI,” noted Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.
“In most cases, AI functions will be transparent to users just like they are in search engines today,” he told TechNewsWorld.
The AI functionality simply makes the tools more efficient and useful.
“Think of this as reducing some of the simple tasks — not the human
part of the equation,” McGregor suggested, “and think about intelligent
digital assistants and word predictors or spell checkers that are more
reliable than the ones we have today. This will be the most common form
of AI — embedded solutions that make the tools we use better, from
search engines to scientific research.”
How Far to Take It
Although the most extreme AI danger may lie in the rise of machines that
overpower human controls, there are more subtle menaces to consider
when it comes to the place it will take in our lives.
“It is upon us to draw a line,” said Entner.
“Examples like Google and its all-encompassing ‘data kraken’ make it
clear how blurry the line is between really useful and really creepy —
like when your Android phone constantly asks you if you are actually
shopping at the store you are at,” he pointed out. “Big brother [could
be] watching all the time.”