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Microsoft Puts Focus on Cortana and Skype Bots at Build Conference

Alex Spencer

Microsoft Build
Microsoft is currently holding its 2016 Build developer conference, and the big theme of the first day – in the form of the Cortana Intelligence Suite and Skype Bot Platform – is artificial intelligence.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said he expects AI to have “as profound an impact as previous shifts we've had,” referring to developments like web browsers and mobile touchscreens.

Formerly known as the Cortana Analytics Suite, the Cortana Intelligence Suite enables developers to create apps that make use of machine learning and bots that can interact with real people in 'personalised, intelligent ways'.

The platform is gaining Microsoft Cognitive Services, a collection of intelligence APIs that allows systems to see, hear, speak using natural methods of communication, and the Microsoft Bot Framework, which can be used on a wide variety of platforms, including SMS, Office, Slack and the web.

To illustrate the power of these tools, Microsoft demonstrated Seeing AI, a research project that's being developed to help people who are blind or visually impaired understand what's around them.

The Skype Bot Platform includes an SDK, API and workflows for building chatbots that can communicate via text, voice and even video, using interactive 3D animated characters. Microsoft is also launching a new Skype mobile and desktop client for users so that experience these bots.

“As an industry, we are on the cusp of a new frontier that pairs the power of natural human language with advanced machine intelligence,” said Nadella. “At Microsoft, we call this 'conversations as a platform', and it builds on and extends the power of the Microsoft Azure, Office 365 and Windows platforms to empower developers everywhere.”

It's not the most fortuitous bit of timing for on Microsoft's part, though, given the reception to 'Tay', the Twitter chatbot the company launched last week but quickly had to take down after it started tweeting racist and sexual content, before making made an inadvertent brief return during which it made comments about taking drugs.

Also at Build, Microsoft announced the Anniversary Update for Windows 10, the highlights of which are Microsoft Ink, a drawing and writing service, and improvements to Cortana – naturally – including the ability to trigger while a device is locked, without requiring the user to log in.

Finally, the developer edition of Microsoft's HoloLens VR/AR platform, which was first announced last year, began shipping its first units to devs, and Microsoft showed off use cases at NASA and Case Western Reserve University.